It has been said that greatness often comes from inauspicious beginnings. If that is true, then the company currently known as Skil Power Tools (a division of Robert Bosch
, GmbH) certainly fits the bill. This ubiquitous Skilsaw circular saw
that has become a common household word likely started off as an idea toward filling a need in the agricultural arena.
In the early 1920's, a Frenchman named Edmond Michel developed a rotary cutting implement designed to cut sugar cane stalks in the bayou of Louisiana, after watching laborers struggle to cut through the stalks with machetes. After a few attempts, he came up with an idea utilizing a rotary saw blade powered by the electric motor from a malted milk mixing machine. Little did he know at the time, but his design would be the forerunner of the world's first worm-drive circular saw.
A search for US Patent #1512296 (filed on October 23, 1922 and marked patented two days earlier) reveals that Michel may have had woodworking in mind when he designed the first circular saw. According to the patent records (found through a search of Google Patents
), Michel wrote, "When accuracy is not necessary the guide may be readily removed, but when employed it affords a rest immediately in front of the saw, and whenever cutting wood or similar material it will be found very useful in maintaining a uniform depth of cut."
Michel formed the Michel Electric Handsaw Company with Joseph Sullivan, a Minneapolis-based land developer, and together they developed the world's first portable electric handsaw. Two years later, Michel left the company he helped found to pursue other ventures. The company subsequently re-branded as Skilsaw after Sullivan's wife observed that their circular saw
required a considerable amount of skill to operate.
Focusing their efforts on construction trades, Skilsaw continued working on variations of the design, and in 1928, they established the Model E, which included a die-cast aluminum motor housing and a worm-drive transmission. This model pushed the fledgling company toward early profitability as word spread of this time-saving device.
Improvements to motor technology as well as a clutch designed to reduce kickback and saw overload made the saw easier and safer to use. In 1950, Skilsaw changed their name to the Skil Corporation, and the company began to branch out into other products. Eventually, the worm drive models gave way to direct drive circular saws such as the Model 77, a saw that was so popular that many craftsmen still use these saws today. Growing up, the first circular saw I ever used was a Skil Model 77 that my dad was given by his father years before.
During this period, Skil began to focus on other tools, such as a short-lived venture into radial-arm saws
, a 3-way action roto hammer, power drills
In the 1960's, Skil expanded beyond the United States, setting up a factory in Breda (in the Netherlands) and another in nearby Eindhoven (also in the Netherlands). The success in Europe led to the development of a network of factories, service facilities and sales offices around the globe.
In the 70's, Skil's innovation continued as they introduced the first consumer cordless drill
a trend that would prove to be years ahead of its time, plus never before seen safety features on chain saws, such as anti-vibration and safety handles as well as the early forerunners of the chain saw automatic brake, a somewhat crude but very effective lever in front of the forward handle that, if the chain saw were to kick back and the nose of the bar suddenly lift upwards, the operator's forearm would push against the lever, engaging a clutch brake that would stop the chain before it reached the operator's body or face. This design is similar to the chain brakes in use today.
The decade of the 1980's would see Skil's first ever cordless in-line battery-powered screwdriver
, a tool that once again was well ahead of its time. Later that decade, in 1987, they released their first 12-volt drill/driver, an innovation that would eventually lead to the useful cordless impact drivers
so commonplace today.
In the 1990's, Skil was purchased by a partnership of Emerson Tools and Robert Bosch GmbH, known as the S-B Power Tool Company. In 2006, Emerson left the S-B partnership, and the Skil Corporation continues to this day as a subsidiary of Bosch, offering nearly 100 different power tools in their line.
Sources: Skil Tools (www.skiltools.com), Skil Tools Asia (www.skil.com.my), Google Patents (www.google.com/patents), and A History of the Amateur Woodworking Movement (www.woodworkinghistory.com)