Pneumatic Hammer (Jackhammer)


As the US and Europe quickly built ever-larger cities and railroads they needed equipment to manipulate the earth at a large scale. The jackhammer is one of these innovations. The jackhammer vastly lowered the cost of blasting rocks and coal.

Before the jackhammer men used hammers to blast away at rocks, breaking big rocks into little rocks. It was hard, dirty, dangerous work. Like countless innovations here, the jackhammer reduced jobs but they were horrible literal backbreaking work.

When the first intercontinental railroad was built, before the jackhammer, men hung from ropes and broke rocks by hand with hammers. It was awful work. Chinese immigrants were often used because everybody else refused to do the work.

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Like many innovations, the exact origins of the jackhammer are murky. Some histories attribute the tool to Jonathon Couch. Others credit William Mcreavy, who patented it and sold the patent to Charles Brady King. Couch and Mcreavy are English; King is an American who lived in Detroit.

Jackhammers quickly gained popularity in mines and railroads. In this time, before electricity, steam engines were used to compress the air. Cylinders of compressed air were brought to worksites where the hammers blasted away far more efficiently than people. Eventually, jackhammers were also used to build urban infrastructure but, due to noise, were never especially popular.

King profited handsomely. Eventually, he used the money the patent brought, along with other innovations, to found the King Motor Car Company. They released the first left-hand drive car and the first V8 engine. Studebaker purchased the company.

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King’s jackhammer was built on the work of Samuel Ingersoll, inventor of the pneumatics. Like many on this list, Ingersoll died flat-broke. Despite Ingersoll’s countless inventions, including the pneumatics that helped build the modern world, others reaped all the financial benefits. Ingersoll never had anything to do with the company that bears his name.

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