In early periods, the trunks of trees were split with wedges into as many and as thin pieces as possible 639 ; and if it was necessary to have them still thinner, they were hewn on both sides to the proper size. This simple and wasteful manner of making boards has been still continued to the present time. Peter the Great of Russia endeavoured to put a stop to it by forbidding hewn deals to be transported on the river Neva. The saw, however, though so convenient and beneficial, has not been able to banish entirely the practice of splitting timber used in building, or in making furniture and utensils, for I do not speak here of fire-wood; and, indeed, it must be allowed that this method is attended with peculiar advantages, which that of sawing can never possess. The wood-splitters perform their work more expeditiously than sawyers, and split timber is much stronger than that which has been sawn; for the fissure follows the grain of the wood, and leaves it whole; whereas the saw, which proceeds in the line chalked out for it, divides the fibres, and by these means lessens its cohesion and solidity. Split timber, indeed, turns out often crooked and warped; but in many purposes to which it is applied this is not prejudicial; and such faults may sometimes be amended. As the fibres, however, retain their natural length and direction, thin boards, particularly, can be bent much better. This is a great advantage in making pipe-staves, or sieve-frames, which require still more art, and in forming various implements of the like kind.

Our common saw, which needs only to be guided by the hand of the workman, however simple it may be, was not known to the inhabitants of America when they were subdued by the Europeans 640. The inventor of this instrument has by the Greeks been inserted in their mythology, with a place in which, among their gods, they honoured the greatest benefactors of the earliest ages. By some he is called Talus, and by others Perdix. Pliny 641 alone ascribes the invention to Dædalus; but Hardouin, in the passage where he does so, chooses to read Talus rather than Dædalus. In my opinion, Pliny may have committed an error as well as any of the moderns; and as one writer at present misleads another, Seneca 642 , who gives the same inventor, may have fallen into a mistake by copying Pliny. Diodorus Siculus 643 Apollodorus 644 , and others name the inventor Talus. He was the son of Dædalus's sister; and was by his mother placed under the tuition of her brother, to be instructed in his art. Having once found the jaw-bone of a snake, he employed it to cut through a small piece of wood; and by these means was induced to form a like instrument of iron, that is, to make a saw. This invention, which greatly facilitates labour, excited the envy of his master, and instigated him to put Talus to death privately. We are told, that being asked by some one, when he was burying the body, what he was depositing in the earth, he replied, a serpent. This suspicious answer discovered the murder; and thus, adds the historian, a snake was the cause of the invention, of the murder, and of its being found out 645.

Hyginus 646 Servius 647 Fulgentius 648 , Lactantius Placidus 649 Isidorus 650 , and others call the inventor Perdix. That he was the son of a sister of Dædalus they all agree; but they differ respecting the name of his parents. The mother, by Fulgentius, is called Polycastes, but without any proof; and Lactantius gives to the father the name of Calaus. In Apollodorus, however, the mother of Talus is called Perdix; and the same name is given by Tzetzes to the mother of the inventor, whose name Talus he changes into Attalus 651. Perdix, we are told, did not employ for a saw the jaw-bone of a snake, like Talus, but the back-bone of a fish; and this is confirmed by Ovid 652 , who nevertheless is silent respecting the name of the inventor.

What may be meant by spina piscis  it is perhaps difficult to conjecture; but I can by no means make spina dorsi  of it, as Dion. Salvagnius has done, in his observations on the passage quoted from Ovid's Ibis. The small bony processes which project from the spine of a fish have some similitude to a saw; but it would be hardly possible to saw through with them small pieces of wood. These bones are too long, as well as too far distant from each other; and the joints of the back-bone are liable to be dislocated by the smallest force. I am not acquainted with the spine of any fish which would be sufficiently strong for that purpose. The jaw-bone of a fish furnished with teeth would be more proper; but the words spina in medio pisce  prevent us from adopting that alteration. I should be inclined rather to explain this difficulty by the bone which projects from the snout of the saw-fish, called by the Romans serra, and by the Greeks pristis. That bone, indeed, might not be altogether unfit for such a use: the teeth are strongly united to the broad bone in the middle, and are capable of resisting a great force; but they are placed at rather too great a distance. The old inhabitants of Madeira, however, we are told, really used this bone instead of a saw 653. That Talus found the jaw-bone of a snake with teeth like a saw is extremely probable, for there are many snakes which have teeth of that kind.

The saws of the Grecian carpenters had the same form, and were made in the like ingenious manner as ours are at present. This is fully shown by a painting still preserved among the antiquities of Herculaneum 654. Two genii are represented at the end of a bench, which consists of a long table that rests upon two four-footed stools. The piece of wood which is to be sawn through is secured by cramps. The saw with which the genii are at work has a perfect resemblance to our frame-saw. It consists of a square frame, having in the middle a blade, the teeth of which stand perpendicular to the plane of the frame. The piece of wood which is to be sawn extends beyond the end of the bench, and one of the workmen appears standing and the other sitting on the ground. The arms, in which the blade is fastened, have the same form as that given to them at present. In the bench are seen holes, in which the cramps that hold the timber are stuck. They are shaped like the figure seven; and the ends of them reach below the boards that form the top of it. The French call a cramp of this kind un valet 655 .

Montfaucon 656  also has given the representation of two ancient saws taken from Gruter. One of them seems to be only the blade of a saw without any frame; but the other figure I consider as a cross-cut saw; and I think I can distinguish all the parts, though it is imperfectly delineated. One may however perceive both the handles between which the blade is fastened; the wooden bar that binds them together, though the blade is delineated too near it; and about the middle of this bar, the piece of wood that tightens the cord which keeps the handles as well as the whole instrument firm. Saws which were not placed in a frame, but fastened to a handle, are thus described by Palladius 657 :—“Serrulæ manubriatæ minores majoresque ad mensuram cubiti, quibus facile est, quod per serram fieri non potest, resecando trunco arboris, aut vitis interseri.”

The most beneficial and ingenious improvement of this instrument was, without doubt, the invention of saw-mills, which are driven either by water, wind, [or by steam]. Mills of the first kind were erected so early as the fourth century, in Germany, on the small river Roer or Ruer 658 ; for though Ausonius speaks properly of water-mills for cutting stone, and not timber, it cannot be doubted that these were invented later than mills for manufacturing deals, or that both kinds were erected at the same time. The art however of cutting marble with a saw is very old. Pliny 659  conjectures that it was invented in Caria; at least he knew no building incrusted with marble of greater antiquity than the palace of king Mausolus, at Halicarnassus. This edifice is celebrated by Vitruvius 660 , for the beauty of its marble; and Pliny gives an account of the different kinds of sand used for cutting it; for it is the sand properly, says he, and not the saw, which produces that effect. The latter presses down the former, and rubs it against the marble; and the coarser the sand is, the longer will be the time required to polish the marble which has been cut by it. Stones of the soap-rock kind, which are indeed softer than marble, and which would require less force than wood, were sawn at that period 661 : but it appears that the far harder glassy kinds of stone were sawn then also; for we are told of the discovery of a building which was encrusted with cut agate, cornelian, lapis lazuli, and amethysts 662. I have, however, found no account in any of the Greek or Roman writers of a mill for sawing wood; and as the writers of modern times speak of saw-mills as new and uncommon, it would seem that the oldest construction of them has been forgotten, or that some important improvement has made them appear entirely new.

Becher says, with his usual confidence, that saw-mills were invented in the seventeenth century 663. Though this is certainly false, I did not expect to find that there were saw-mills in the neighbourhood of Augsburg so early as the year 1337, as Stetten 664  has discovered by the town-books of that place. I shall here insert his own words, in answer to a request I made that he would be so kind as to communicate to me all the information he knew on that subject:—“You are desirous of reading that passage in our town-books, where saw-mills are first mentioned; but it is of very little importance. There is to be found only under the year 1338 the name of a burgher called Giss Saegemuller; and though it may be objected that one cannot from the name infer the existence of the employment, I am of a different opinion; especially as I have lately been able to obtain a proof much more to be depended on. In the surveyors' book, which I have often before quoted, and which, perhaps, for many centuries has not been seen or consulted by any one, I find under the year 1322, and several times afterwards, sums disbursed under the following title: Molitori dicto Hanrey pro asseribus et swaertlingis. Schwartlings, among us, are the outside deals of the trunk, which in other places are called Schwarten. This word, therefore, makes the existence of a saw-mill pretty certain. As a confirmation of this idea, we have still a mill of that kind which is at present called the Hanrey-mill; and the stream which supplies it with water is called the Hanrey-brook. Since the earliest ages, the ground on which this mill, and the colour, stamping, and oil-mills in the neighbourhood are built, was the property of the hospital of the Holy Ghost. By that hospital it was given as a life-rent to a rich burgher named Erlinger, but returned again in 1417 by his daughter Anna Bittingerin, who had, above and under the Hanrey-mill, two other saw-mills, which still exist, and for which, in virtue of an order of council of that year, she entered into a contract with the hospital in regard to the water and mill-dams.” There were saw-mills, therefore, at Augsburg so early as 1322. This appears to be highly probable also from the circumstance, that such mills occur very often in the following century in many other countries.

When the Infant Henry sent settlers to the island of Madeira, which was discovered in 1420, and caused European fruits of every kind to be carried thither, he ordered saw-mills to be erected also, for the purpose of sawing into deals the various species of excellent timber with which the island abounded, and which were afterwards transported to Portugal 665. About the year 1427 the city of Breslau had a saw-mill which produced a yearly rent of three marks; and in 1490 the magistrates of Erfurt purchased a forest, in which they caused a saw-mill to be erected, and they rented another mill in the neighbourhood besides. Norway, which is covered with forests, had the first saw-mill about the year 1530. This mode of manufacturing timber was called the new art; and because the exportation of deals was by these means increased, that circumstance gave occasion to the deal-tythe, introduced by Christian III. in the year 1545 666. Soon after the celebrated Henry Ranzau caused the first mill of this kind to be built in Holstein 667. In 1552 there was a saw-mill at Joachimsthal, which, as we are told, belonged to Jacob Geusen, mathematician. In the year 1555 the bishop of Ely, ambassador from Mary queen of England to the court of Rome, having seen a saw-mill in the neighbourhood of Lyons, the writer of his travels thought it worthy of a particular description 668. In the sixteenth century, however, there were mills with different saw-blades, by which a plank could be cut into several deals at the same time. Pighius saw one of these, in 1575, on the Danube, near Ratisbon, when he accompanied Charles, prince of Juliers and Cleves, on his travels 669. It may here be asked whether the Dutch had such mills first, as is commonly believed 670. The first saw-mill was erected in Holland at Saardam, in the year 1596; and the invention of it is ascribed to Cornelis Cornelissen 671 ; but he is as little the inventor as the mathematician of Joachimsthal. Perhaps he was the first person who built a saw-mill at that place, which is a village of great trade, and has still a great many saw-mills, though the number of them is becoming daily less; for within the last thirty years a hundred have been given up 672. The first mill of this kind in Sweden was erected in the year 1653 673. At present, that kingdom possesses the largest perhaps ever constructed in Europe, where a water-wheel, twelve feet broad, drives at the same time seventy-two saws.

In England saw-mills had at first the same fate that printing had in Turkey, the ribbon-loom in the dominions of the Church, and the crane at Strasburgh. When attempts were made to introduce them they were violently opposed, because it was apprehended that the sawyers would be deprived by them of their means of getting a subsistence. For this reason it was found necessary to abandon a saw-mill erected by a Dutchman near London 674 , in 1663; and in the year 1700, when one Houghton laid before the nation the advantages of such a mill, he expressed his apprehension that it might excite the rage of the populace 675. What he dreaded was actually the case in 1767 or 1768, when an opulent timber-merchant, by the desire and approbation of the Society of Arts, caused a saw-mill, driven by wind, to be erected at Limehouse under the direction of James Stansfield, who had learned, in Holland and Norway, the art of constructing and managing machines of that kind. A mob assembled and pulled the mill to pieces; but the damage was made good by the nation, and some of the rioters were punished. A new mill was afterwards erected, which was suffered to work without molestation, and which gave occasion to the erection of others 676. It appears, however, that this was not the only mill of the kind then in Britain; for one driven also by wind had been built at Leith, in Scotland, some years before 677.

[The application of the steam-engine has in modern times almost entirely displaced the use of either water or wind as sources of power in machinery, and most of the saw-mills now in action, especially those on a large scale, are worked by steam. Some idea of the precision with which their operations are now accomplished may be obtained from the following fact. At the City of London saw-mills, the largest log of wood which had been placed on the carriage in one piece—a log of Honduras mahogany 18 feet long and three feet one inch square,—was cut into unbroken sheets at the rate of ten to an inch, and so beautifully smooth as to require scarcely any dressing.]


639  Virgil. Georg. lib. i. v. 144. Pontoppidan says, “Before the middle of the sixteenth century all trunks were hewn and split with the axe into two planks; whereas at present they would give seven or eight boards. This is still done in some places where there are no saw-mills in the neighbourhood; especially at Sudenoer and Amte Nordland, where a great many boats and sloops are built of such hewn boards, which are twice as strong as those sawn; but they consume too many trunks.” See Natürliche Historie von Norwegen. Copenhagen, 1753, 2 vols. 8vo, i. p. 244.

640  De Garcilasso de la Vega, Histoire des Incas.

641  Lib. vii. 1. cap. 56.

642  Epist. 90.

643  Diodor. Sicul. iv. cap. 78.

644  Apollodori Bibl. lib. iii. cap. 16.

645  Those who are desirous of seeing the whole account may consult Diodorus, or Banier's Mythology, [or Keightley's Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy, p. 398, Lond. 1838.]

646  Hygin. Fab. 39, 244, 274.

647  Ad Georg. i. 143.

648  Mythographi, ed. Van Staveren, lib. iii. 2, p. 708.

649  In Mythogr. et in Ovid. Burm. lib. viii. fab. 3.

650  Orig. lib. xix. cap. 19.

651  Chiliad. i. 493.

652  Metamorph. lib. viii. 244. The following line from the Ibis, ver. 500, alludes to the same circumstance:

“Ut cui causa necis serra reperta fuit.”

653  See Cadomosto's Voyage to Africa, in Novi Orbis Navigat. cap. 6. This account is not so ridiculous as that of Olaus Magnus, who says that the saw-fish can with his snout bore through a ship. [There are however many well-authenticated instances of the planks of ships being perforated by the upper jaw of this powerful animal, which it has been supposed occasionally attacks the hulls of vessels in mistake for the whale.]

654  Le Pitture antiche d'Ercolano, vol. i. tav. 34.

655  That cramps or hold-fasts are still formed in the same manner as those seen in the ancient painting found at Herculaneum, particularly when fine inlaid works are made, is proved by the figure in Roubo, l'Art du Menuisier, tab. xi. fig. 4, and xii. fig. 15.

656  L'Antiquité Expliquée, vol. iii. pl. 189.

657  Pallad. De Re Rust. lib. i. tit. 43.—Cicero, in his oration for Cluentius, chap. lxiv., speaks of an ingenious saw, with which a thief sawed out the bottom of a chest.

658  Ausonii Mosella, v. 361.

659  Plin. lib. xxxvi. cap. 6.

660  Vitruv. lib. ii. cap. 8.

661  Plin. lib. xxxvi. cap. 22.

662  See Jannon de S. Laurent's treatise on the cut stones of the ancients, in Saggi di Dissertazioni nella Acad. Etrusca di Cortona, tom. vi. p. 56.

663  “Saw-mills are useful machines, first introduced in this century; and I do not know any one who can properly be called the real inventor.”—Närrische Weisheit. Frankf. 1683, 12mo, p. 78.

664  In that excellent work, Kunst-und-handwerks Geschichte der Stadt Augsburg, 1779, 8vo, p. 141.

665  This we are told by Abraham Peritsol, the Jew, in Itinera Mundi, printed with the learned annotations of Thomas Hyde, in Ugolini Thesaur. Antiq. Sacr. vol. vii. p. 103. Peritsol wrote before the year 1547.

666  Nic. Cragii Historia regis Christiani III. Hafniæ 1737, fol. p. 293. See also Pontoppidan's History of Norway.

667  Allgemeine Welthistorie, xxxiii. p. 227.

668  The account of this journey may be found in Hardwicke's Miscellaneous State Papers, from 1501 to 1726, i. p. 71:—“The saw-mill is driven with an upright wheel; and the water that maketh it go, is gathered whole into a narrow trough, which delivereth the same water to the wheels. This wheel hath a piece of timber put to the axle-tree end, like the handle of a broch, and fastened to the end of the saw, which being turned with the force of the water, hoisteth up and down the saw, that it continually eateth in, and the handle of the same is kept in a rigall of wood from swerving. Also the timber lieth as it were upon a ladder, which is brought by little and little to the saw with another vice.”

669  Hercules Prodicus. Coloniæ 1609, 8vo, p. 95.

670  Leupoldi Theatrum Machinarum Molarium. Leipzig, 1735, fol. p. 114. I shall here take occasion to remark, that in the sixteenth century there were boring-mills driven by water. Felix Fabri, in his Historia Suevorum, p. 81, says that there were such mills at Ulm.

671  De Koophandel van Amsterdam. Amst. 1727, ii. p. 583.

672  La Richesse de la Hollande. Lond. 1778, 4to, i. p. 259.

673  Clason, Sweriges Handel Omskiften 1751.

674  Anderson's History of Commerce.

675  Houghton's Husbandry and Trade Improved, Lond. 1727, iii. p. 47.

676  Memoirs of Agriculture and other Œconomical Arts, by Robert Dossie. Lond. 1768, 8vo, i. p. 123. Of Stansfield's mill, on which he made some improvements, a description and figure may be seen in Bailey's Advancement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Lond. 1772, i. p. 231.

677  Anderson.