Today, we learn to use a new axe. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
A new kind of felling axe arose in late Colonial
America. It was the familiar axe with a gracefully
curved handle and a head counter-weighted on the
side opposite the blade. It was quite different
from the European axe with its straight handle
fixed to the back of a long narrow blade. For
better or worse, the new axe converted our forests
to farmlands. It transformed the new continent.
But European critics distrusted it. It took extra
skill to wield it because it used new principles of
balance. Still, by the time of the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition, axe
heads were turning up as primary American trade
goods. When English makers copied them, they
stamped their imitations with American makers'
Such an axe could come into being because American
workers were free of any canon of established
technology. Our early craftsmen took great pride in
experimenting, and it often paid off handsomely.
So it should be no surprise that our craftsmen
invented a second radical axe-head design about the
time of the Civil War -- the double-bitted
axe. Lumbering became a major Northern
industry, and mythical Paul Bunyan arose to
represent it. Armed with this new axe, Bunyan was
the prototypical lumberjack. He was
woodcutting carried to a new level -- deforesting
America from Maine to Minnesota.
Historian Ronald Jager tells the story of Bunyan's
new double-bitted axe. It was symmetrical about the
handle with wide blades on either side. You and I
have seen them, but out of the corner of our eye.
The U.S. Post Office got it wrong when they issued
a Paul Bunyan stamp. They showed him carrying the
old counterbalanced axe. The Boy Scouts award a
Paul Bunyan Woodsman emblem that properly
shows a double-bitted axe and nothing else.
But this new axe required new skills, while it also
provided a new cutting efficiency. Its aerodynamics
are such that, if you know how to swing it cleanly,
it offers hardly any drag. Let it catch the wind
just a little, and it can be dangerously unstable.
The Northern lumberjacks, this new breed of skilled
workers, kept one side of their axe sharp and let
the other be nicked and blunted. The sharp blade
was for cutting cleanly into wood. If they saw
anything dubious, like a tough knot, they'd rotate
the handle and use the rough blade.
European experts again looked at the new American
axe and again declared it awkward. But this time
they didn't change their minds. Nor did the new axe
travel very far west of Minnesota. While Paul
Bunyan, with his double-bitted axe, became an
important chapter in the history of the axe, the
chapter was an isolated one.
The history of the axe is the history of America.
Henry David Thoreau caught America's long love
affair with the axe when he wrote about borrowing
one during his stay by Walden Pond. He said,
The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on
said that it was the apple of his eye;
but I returned it sharper than I received it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds