Human Powered DragsawsFrom American Artifacts issue 52, Sept/Oct 2000
Richard Van Vleck
Attempts to mechanize the sawing of logs and firewood resulted in scores of patents for various mechanisms during the 2nd half of the 19th century. Many such inventions were based on changing the rotary motion of a hand crank or belt pulley into the reciprocating action of a cross-cut saw. This plan lead to the gas engine powered drag saws of the 20th century. However, a more interesting group of inventions were those that depended on a moving lever or a combination of levers and foot pedals or even a treadle to power the saw. Many of these machines were lighter than the rotary power machines and were made to fold up to carry through the woods. They could be converted on the spot to saw horizontally to fell a tree or to saw vertically to cut the stem into lumber length logs or short rounds for firewood. Such saws were marketed primarily to farmers who had to cut a firewood supply each year in addition to filling their need for fence posts and lumber.
The following examples illustrate the diversity of inventions for such lever or pedal machines. Perhaps the main appeal of these devices was not any mechanical advantage over using a one man cross-cut saw, but rather the improved working position. One could stand upright and adjust the lever to the most comfortable position rather than having to bend over a large log or kneel down to cut a tree close to the ground.
Marvin Smith’s 1882 patent for a drag-saw. Smith, of New Buffalo, Michigan, received several patents for important components of the F.S.M. sawing machine in the catalog section of this issue. This 1882 version features the adjustable frame for sawing logs squarely that are lying at an angle to the ground. It also folds compactly for transport.
Marvin Smith patented this log clamp for his sawing machine in 1890. The clamp is used on the F.S.M. machine on page 6. The geared clamp was under spring tension and did not require frequent tightening during sawing, as does a conventional dog, where the motion of the saw would work it loose.
Jacob Ellis, of Marshfield, Missouri, was granted a patent in 1888 for a sawing machine that included the roller attached to a spring tensioned arm to exert pressure on the top edge of the blade. This patent also includes the pivot joint on the lever for lateral adjustment of the top part of the lever for user comfort. Both of these features as well as the slotted wood blade guide are included in the Folding Saw Mfg Co. saw in the catalog section.
Jacob Ellis's 1891 patent describes a major modification to his 1888 saw frame which allows both higher and lower cutting of a standing tree. The log dog mechanism in both of Ellis’s patents is different from that used on the F.S.M sawing machine.
John Harris, of Grand Ledge, Michigan, patented this “lazy” saw in 1871. The operator stood on the small platform and worked the handle of the lever up and down.
William Bredemann, of Jefferson City, Missouri received an 1880 patent for this simple but fanciful bent wood sawing machine. Note that the free end of the cross-cut saw has a counterbalancing weight.
Thomas Alexander, of Westerville, Ohio, patented this reciprocating saw in 1859. The geared levers working in opposite directions, make this the first “rowing machine” style sawing machine.
William Giles, of Cincinnati, advertised his patented sawing machines in the 1879 “American Agriculturist”. His “Lightning Saw Horse” was claimed to saw off a 2 foot log in 2 minutes. The illustration in the ad is of Giles’ 1878 patented machine. He patented a modified machine in 1879 using bent metal pipe for the frame to reduce the weight of what was previously a quite heavy apparatus.
Also advertised in the 1879 “American Agriculturist” was a similar sawing machine called the “Riding Saw Machine” by W. W. Bostwick & Co., 178 Elm St., Cincinnati.
Another ad, in the 1879 “Rural New Yorker” for a riding saw by the Farmers Manufacturing Company, also of Cincinnati, appears to be for the same machine. I don’t know the relationship among these three Cincinnati advertisers.
Daniel Heller’s 1870 patent for a sawing machine utilized both foot and hand power with the operator seated. With the saw blade removed and a frame of modern plastic rather than oak, this device would probably sell well on a tv infomercial. The difference is that the original operator burned calories for a useful purpose rather than mindlessly fighting gravity and friction to compensate for overconsumption and lack of meaningful physical work.
A treadle driven sawing machine patented in 1874 by John Linnell, of Monticello, Iowa. The heavy rocking platform cranked a flywheel, which, in turn, operated a cord wood saw. The various parts of the mechanism are built around a saw buck. Such a device was likely dreamed up on a cold winter night when the supply of firewood was running low and time for such whimsical thinking was abundant.
John Lalonde, of Portland Oregon patented this simple rowing machine style saw in 1888. Of interest to implement seat collectors, this device appears to have had a solid cast iron seat.
William Giles 1878 patent for his riding saw. This is the wood frame version heavily advertised in 1879 farm publications. He also claimed it was suitable for cutting stone (obviously with an appropriate blade) and was capable of a very long stroke.
Giles’ 1879 patented saw used gas pipe for the frame and the machine appears to have been made almost entirely of metal. The pivoting seat on this version was linked to the drive mechanism, as well as the treadles and handle bar. The appearance of this machine seems more to resemble an amusement park ride than an exercise machine. A grown man vigorously operating this machine would have been a sight to behold.
© 2000, American Artifacts, Taneytown, MD.
Contact: Richard Van Vleck