Portable electric drills didn’t always look like oversized handguns.
Before Alonzo G. Decker and Samuel D. Black intervened in the 1910s, the machines typically required the use of both hands. The two men, founders of the eponymous American company Black & Decker, developed a portable electric drill that incorporated a pistol grip and trigger switch, apparently inspired by Samuel Colt’s pistol.
We are documenting a collection of more than 50 portable electric drills made roughly between 1930 and 1980.
Seen as part of a history of technology, they have a lot to teach us about function and form, masculine values and the history of Australian craft.
The collection also represents an important chapter in Australian manufacturing, and includes drills produced by local companies such as Sher, KBC and Lightburn that have since disappeared. It also features models made by Black & Decker, which once had manufacturing operations in Australia.
Design historians and collectors have paid little attention to the electric drill. It’s seen as an object of work, unlike domestic items such as the tea kettle, which can be statements of taste and luxury.
But the device deserves our attention. It’s considered the first portable electric power tool, and arguably helped to democratise the industry, putting construction in the hands of everyone from labourers to hobbyists.
The electric drill in Australia
Australia once played a significant role in producing the portable electric drill.
Ken Bowes & Co. Ltd, known as KBC, was a South Australian manufacturing company founded in 1936. Although it produced domestic appliances such as the bean slicer, die casting of military components such as ammunition parts (shell and bomb noses) and tank attack guns kept the company busy during World War II.
It appears that KBC entered the hardware market in 1948 with its first portable electric drill, designed for the cabinet maker and general handyman. The body of the drill was made from die-cast zinc alloy and it had a unique removable front plate on the handle to allow the user easy access to the connection terminals.
In 1956, Black & Decker established an Australian manufacturing plant in Croydon, Victoria, where drills such as the CP2 were manufactured.
Between 1960 and 1982, many power tool brands had a media presence. KBC sponsored a radio program called, appropriately enough, That’s The Drill. Wolf power tools were awarded as prizes on the television program Pick-A-Box.
Black & Decker ran advertisements that appeared during popular television programs and used endorsements by sporting celebrities such as cricketer Dennis Lillee.
While the popularity of portable power drills has endured, the manufacture of these objects in Australia more or less vanished by the end of the 20th century.
Why we value some objects and not others
The portable electric drill has been poorly documented by designers, historians and museums.
Obvious repositories for their collection, such as museums of technology or innovation, are increasingly challenged by space and funding pressures. Apart from a few token examples, many everyday objects have not managed to establish a museum presence.
The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney holds at least two vintage portable electric drills: one is a Desouthers, made in England, and another drill of unknown origin. Museums Victoria has one example of a Black & Decker electric drill from the 1960s in its digital archive.
The crude utility of the portable drill is part of the reason why it has escaped much academic scrutiny.
Design studies and collections tend to focus on luxury objects such as Ferrari sports cars and Rolex wristwatches. Even kitchen and home appliances get more attention, especially those designs associated with high-end companies such as Alessi and designers such as Dieter Rams and Jasper Morrison.
By contrast, the electric drill remains a B-grade object. It is a stock weapon in horror films, although even there it lacks the status reserved for the more sublimely threatening implements of violence such as swords, spears and guns.
The case for the drill
Hard yakka and aesthetics have not typically been happy bedfellows. However, labour and its associated objects can provide a compelling look at contemporary life.
Like the laptop computer, the shape of which is tied to the “macho mystique” of the briefcase, the pistol form of the portable drill seems to be significantly influenced by ideas of power and masculinity.
The symbolic association with the pistol is also practical, and would have no doubt eased the burden for those early users struggling with the device’s weight.
A recent turn towards the everyday as a site for design anthropology will hopefully shift focus towards inconspicuous yet important technologies like portable electric drills.
These objects are part of a rich history that will be forgotten if institutions focus exclusively on luxury items, big name designers and cultures of display and ornament.
Even our most anonymous objects are sources of cultural expression, and they should not be overlooked.