If you’ve ever wondered, “Why were chainsaws invented?” The fact that it wasn’t for cutting wood may surprise you. The initial purpose of the chainsaw was to facilitate childbirth.
“That sounds awful. It was, according to Ohio-based obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Anthony Tizzano. The Tizzano Museum of Obstetrics, Gynaecology, Medical Antiques & Women’s Health History is home to one of the largest private collections of Ob/Gyn artifacts and medical publications in the United States.
Although it is undoubtedly disgusting, the medical chainsaw that was developed at the time saved lives during childbirth because there were no safer alternatives at the time for situations of obstructed labor. This was done long before anyone realized the same mechanism could benefit the lumber sector.
Birthing Babies in the Olden Days
Even though women have been giving birth to children since the dawn of humans, labor was particularly challenging in the days before modern medical innovations like antibiotics, anesthesia, and hygiene rituals like hand-washing.
It might be fatal if a woman experiences complications during labor. Due to the significant risk of infection, a caesarian section was infrequently contemplated because it was believed to be harmful to both the mother and the unborn child. Doctors had no choice except to experiment with other approaches.
French physician Jean-René Sigault proposed a potential remedy for delivering infants caught in the birth canal in the 1770s. Severin Pineau, a French surgeon from the late 1500s, documented a “diastasis of the pubis” (separation or dislocation of the pubic symphysis or joint) in a pregnant lady who had been hanged. Pineau’s writings served as an inspiration for Sigault.
Sigault proposed surgically separating the pelvic joint to widen the pelvic aperture. If it were effective, the infant could enter the delivery canal.
Sigault and his associate Alphonse Le Roy tested the procedure on the first patient in October 1777. Madame Souchot, a 40-year-old woman with rickets who could not give birth vaginally, had a constricted pelvis. The medical establishment believed she had little hope of carrying living children without a caesarian section because she had already lost four infants. But a cesarean delivery would probably have resulted in her death.
With little to lose, Sigault completed the first “symphysiotomy” by cutting through Souchot’s pubic joint. After the mother and child’s lives were spared, symphysiotomies for mothers going through obstructed labor quickly became commonplace.
Two Scottish Doctors Improve the Symphysiotomy
The symphysiotomy technique was improved upon in 1785 by Scottish physicians and obstetricians John Aitken and James Jeffrey using a device that would eventually be known as the Aitkens flexible chainsaw.
The cutting tool was created expressly to make removing the woman’s pelvic bone during birthing simpler and faster. In addition, the flexible chainsaw reduced damage to nearby tissue compared to the usual rigid saws and sharp knives.
The Aitkens flexible chainsaw was fashioned with a fine serrated link chain with teardrop-shaped handles on both ends. Tizzano describes it as a “unique and rare” item in his collection of vintage surgical instruments. Doctors might attach a blunt-pointed needle to the chain’s end by removing one of the handles from the device.
To prepare for the symphysiotomy, the surgeons utilized the needle to direct the chain behind the pubic bone. The surgeon would then use back-and-forth motions of their hands to “saw” through the pelvic bone with greater speed and accuracy than they could have done with a sharp knife.
Italian physician Leonardo Gigli created the Gigli twisted wire saw in the 1890s. This chainsaw had T-shaped grips that were more comfortable to hold and performed similarly to the Aikens saw. It also had a chain of twisted wire that was finer and simpler to position, with tiny sharp teeth.
Symphysiotomies started to go out of favor at the turn of the century due to safer C-sections made possible by general anesthesia, better medical practices, and hygienic hospital conditions. The Gigli twisted wire saw was used for cutting and amputating procedures on diseased bone.
Amputations are carried out using contemporary power tools today. While accuracy and control are crucial for various medical procedures, flexible chainsaws like the Gigli wire are still employed.
Bernhard Heine’s Version of the First Chainsaw
Bernhard Heine, an orthopedic technician who later became an orthopedic surgeon, revolutionized the medical and physical sciences in 1830 by developing a revolutionary medical chainsaw. Heine had created many tools, but his chain osteotome was more well-known.
According to Tizzano’s copy of George Tiemann & Co.’s Surgical Instruments catalog from around 1889, the instrument had small “teeth on the exterior, grooves on the inside corresponding to spurs on the motive wheel,” much like the modern chainsaw (which is somewhat similar to the chain osteotome). Along with the motor wheel, it also had a “thin, knife-like plate (deeply grooved longitudinally) over which the saw is extended.”
The patient was spared the blows of a hammer and chisel, or the jarring of a standard amputation saw thanks to Heine’s osteotome, which featured a hand crank and could cut through the bone rapidly. (Considering the infrequent use of anesthesia at the time, this was excellent.)
Even though symphysiotomies were still being performed at the time, Tizanno affirms that the osteotome was never utilized for this surgical treatment because it required an initial approach that was impossible with Heine’s chainsaw.
Andreas Stihl Invents the Electric Chainsaw
But because the osteotome could be adjusted, it was perfect for other delicate operations. The chainsaw’s guards may be adjusted to reduce the number of patients that need to be cut. To execute operations like craniotomies without shattering bones or harming nearby tissue, such as the brain, soft tissue damage was averted.
The osteotome, however, has some shortcomings. Tiemann’s 1872 catalog listed it as a $300 surgical device, costing three times as much as a conventional medical chainsaw, which cost just $5. (Recent sales of complete, cased specimens of vintage Heine osteotomes have fetched over $30,000, according to Tizzano.) Additionally, using it required tremendous talent, and Heine was regrettably one of the few who needed to improve.
It took some time before someone realized that a saw designed for cutting birth canals might also be used to cut down trees much more quickly. Some claim that John Muir, an inventor, and naturalist, made this leap first in 1897. His creation, however, was a substantial mechanical device that weighed hundreds of pounds and needed a crane to operate. It was not a commercial success due to its impracticality.
Logger Samuel J. Bens of San Francisco submitted a patent application in 1905 for his “endless-chain saw,” which he said was based on Heine’s initial osteotome. His tool was equally unusable since it was fairly large, needed multiple users, and needed to be more convenient. The first portable chainsaw was patented more than ten years later by Canadian James Shand, but the term “portable” was a stretch, given how heavy it was.
German technician Andreas Stihl patented the first electric chainsaw in 1926 and used it for forestry. Three years later, Stihl produced a gas version of that idea. However, both were operated by more than one person.
It was in the 1950s that the first single-person chainsaw would enter production. That paved the way for contemporary chainsaws; the rest is history, as they say.
The chainsaw we know today
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several innovators developed gasoline or steam-powered saws with flexible chains. Still, according to Jim Waldrop of the British Columbia Provincial Museum, none of these early ideas were useful because of their huge engines, which made them challenging to move.
According to Waldrop, the first transportable, gasoline-powered chainsaw was given a patent in 1918 by Canadian logger James Shand.