The chainsaw was invented for chopping down trees, right?
Wrong, the chainsaw was invented for helping women give birth.
But how can that be?
Well, until two hundred years ago, childbirth wasn’t pleasant for the mother.
Especially if, for whatever reason, the baby wouldn’t fit through her opening.
The main medical tools of the time were knives, saws, chisels, and mallets.
If the baby was too large, or turned the wrong way, the opening had to be widened.
This involved cutting away bone and cartilage, and lots of pain (because there were no anaesthetics).
The process was called a symphysiotomy: the pelvis had to be cut and expanded, in order to make the opening wider.
This was such an unpleasant procedure that two Scottish doctors independently invented a tool to make it more efficient.
They invented the chainsaw.
The chainsaw was a tool with a chain of saw-teeth that was hand-cranked.
In 1783, James Aitken illustrated his device in ‘Principles of Midwifery or Perpeural Medicine’.
In 1790, James Jeffroy developed his own version and wrote about it in ‘Cases of Excision of Curious Joints’.
Their chainsaws were an improvement on the surgeon’s saw, which had to be inserted into the opening and pulled and pushed back and forth, while the legs were held apart.
At least with the chainsaw the surgeon just held it in place and turned the crank.
Obviously the principle of continuous motion over reciprocating motion was better for the patient, but it was also a more efficient use of energy.
In 1905, Samuel J Bens spotted this and used it for the giant redwoods he was logging.
When men sawed back and forth, every stroke had to stop and reverse and waste energy.
But with a chainsaw the movement was in one direction, there was no wasted energy.
And he was granted US patent 780,476 for his ‘endless chain-saw’.
Enlarging surgical chainsaws up to tree-felling size meant they were huge and cumbersome, but still had to be cranked by hand.
So in 1926, Andreas Stihl invented the electric-powered chainsaw, and in 1929 the petrol-powered version.
In the 1950s the chainsaw became smaller and portable, to the point where one person could operate one on their own.
And today, most people wouldn’t believe you if you told them where chainsaws started off.
But that’s the way it is with ideas.
An idea doesn’t pop out fully formed and stop there forever.
An idea gets changed, improved, and repurposed.
That’s the difference between pure math and applied math, between pure art and applied art.
One person makes a discovery, another person decides what it can be used for.
We don’t usually invent something from scratch, we repurpose an idea that already exists.
Something the original innovator didn’t even see when they created it.
That’s how creativity works, in incremental stages, each stage is a new creative vision.
As film maker Jean-Luc Goddard said: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”
Or as the best art-director ever, Helmut Krone, said: “First you make the revolution, then you decide what it’s for.”