Why Were Chainsaws Invented? The Shocking Truth!

why were chainsaws invented

Chainsaws are powerful tools that we often associate with lumberjacks cutting down trees or horror movie villains chasing victims. But did you know that the original purpose of the chainsaw had nothing to do with trees or terror? In fact, chainsaws were initially invented to assist with childbirth.

The pioneering chainsaw was the brainchild of two Scottish doctors, John Aitken and James Jeffray, who created a prototype in the late 18th century. At the time, death rates during childbirth were alarmingly high, and caesarean sections were a last resort. Aitken and Jeffray developed the chainsaw as a more efficient and less invasive way to remove pieces of a woman’s pelvic bone to aid difficult births.

 Though gruesome by today’s standards, their newfangled bone-cutting tool was designed to be gentler on patients than a mallet and chisel. The inventive Scottish doctors hoped their “osteotome” would change lives, and in a way they probably never imagined, it did.

                                       Why Were Chainsaws Invented? The Shocking Truth!

The role of chainsaws in childbirth

In the era before modern medicine, obstructed labor was a major threat to the lives of both mothers and babies. Barbaric procedures were sometimes employed out of desperation, so the chainsaw seemed miraculous by comparison. The rotating chain enabled precision cuts to widen the pelvic outlet with minimal tearing of soft tissue. 

Though still horrific to us now, using chainsaws for symphysiotomy and excision of diseased bone was an improvement over the available alternatives at the time. For many difficult births, chainsaws prevented the need for destructive fetal craniotomy or dangerous caesarean sections in an age before antibiotics and safe blood transfusions. The groundbreaking Scottish tool ushered in a new era of operative obstetrics.

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Of course, the medical chainsaw was far from perfect. Early prototypes were cumbersome, unsterilized, and posed a high risk of hemorrhage and infection. But they were an important first step in developing better obstetric tools. The inventive thinking of Aitken and Jeffray paved the way for safer obstetrical surgeries that would emerge decades later. Though chainsaws were quickly superseded for obstetric use, their significance in medical history should not be forgotten.


The evolution of chainsaws

The transition from medical instrument to logging tool was an unexpected pivot for the chainsaw. As their use in childbirth declined, chainsaws were adopted for forestry work in the early 19th century. The portability provided by English engineer Samuel O’Calaghan’s two-man chainsaw made timber harvesting feasible in remote forests. Meanwhile in Germany, orthopedic surgeon Bernhard Heine modified the bonesaw into a handheld version for cutting wood. 

Further innovations, like Canadian James Shand’s 1860s “Chain Sawing Machine” and the gasoline-powered saws of the early 1900s, gradually transformed the chainsaw into the power tool we know today.

Key moments in chainsaw development include the 1910s patents of the “Endless Chain Saw” which allowed endless loops of chain to rotate around a bar, creating a smoother and safer motion. The 1920s brought lighter gasoline engines and better clutch systems for starting. And Andreas Stihl’s 1926 electric chainsaw further revolutionized logging efficiency and safety. By mid-century, this once obscure medical contraption had become an indispensable tool of the timber trade. The world’s forests would never be the same.

The modern chainsaw

Today, the chainsaw’s major uses are in forestry, tree care, and construction. Powerful gas chainsaws can fell trees and cut lumber on an industrial scale. More compact electric chainsaws allow for precision work like tree pruning and sculpture. Chainsaws shape wooden crafts, carve ice sculptures, and trim roots on construction sites. They have become an icon of rugged outdoor work. It’s hard to believe this staple of the lumberjack once had a place in the operating room.

Chainsaw safety and maintenance

While a useful tool, chainsaws can also pose risks to users if not treated with caution. Some key points of chainsaw safety include:

  • Wear proper protective gear like chaps, boots, eyewear and headphones
  • Check for issues like dull blades or chain tension before use
  • Refuel with care away from sources of ignition
  • Hold firmly with both hands and keep proper stance
  • Watch for kickback which can cause loss of control
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Equally important is regular maintenance like cleaning the air filter, checking the chain lubrication, and replacing worn clutch drums. Chainsaws won’t function properly or safely with problems like an improperly oiled chain that increases friction on the guide bar. Regular upkeep and addressing issues promptly allows for smooth, trouble-free operation over years of hard use. From a few checks before startup to replacing components as needed, proper care of your chainsaw prevents injuries and keeps you working efficiently.

Chainsaws in popular culture

Far removed from 19th century medicine, chainsaws now evoke darkly theatrical horror imagery in popular culture. From slasher movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to video game villains like Gears of War’s General RAAM, chainsaws symbolize the merciless dismemberment of victims. Real-life stories of chainsaw accidents and assaults have bolstered their shock factor. Killer clowns, zombies, and other monsters rev up their chainsaw menace to amplify the terror. Even cartoon characters like Lobo and Leatherface make chainsaws an absurd yet frightening spectacle.

Of course, endless villainous uses in entertainment distort the reality of chainsaws as practical tools. But there is something about the whirring metal blade that strikes bone-chilling fear into audiences. The chainsaw’s sheer capacity to wreak havoc on the vulnerable human body perhaps reminds us of their original bloody purpose. But today these iconic power tools are far more likely to cut down trees or carve wood than to dismember anyone, despite what Hollywood would have us believe.


The history of chainsaws took surprising twists and turns to arrive at their current iconic status. From the operating rooms of 18th century Scotland to the slashers of 20th century cinema, society’s relationship with the chainsaw has been multifaceted. Their life-saving medical origins and gradual adoption by loggers were an unexpected evolution. Now, despite their reputation as movie murder weapons, chainsaws remain dependable tools for all kinds of demanding work. So the next time you hear the characteristic chainsaw buzz, remember it was a sound first developed to protect mothers, not massacre teens in cabins. The chainsaw’s past is more nuanced than many realize.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How did chainsaws transition from medical instruments to logging tools?

The transition happened gradually over the 1800s as engineers modified the original bonesaw design for purposes like timber harvesting. Portability improvements eventually allowed chainsaws to be taken outside hospitals and used for cutting wood efficiently in logging operations.

What were the key milestones in chainsaw development?

Some major milestones were the first chainsaw prototype in the late 1700s, the two-person chainsaw for logging in the 1830s, early gasoline models in the 1900s, and the modern endless chain saw patented in the 1920s. Other key innovations like electric motors and safety features arrived mid-century.

How do modern chainsaws differ from the original prototype?

The medical chainsaw was based on a hand crank design without a guide bar, while modern saws are powered by gas or electricity and have an encased metal bar to guide an endless chain loop. Safety features, precision, portability and power have also improved enormously over 200 years of development.

What are the primary uses of chainsaws today?

Nowadays chainsaws are used mostly for forestry, tree care, construction, sculpting, and other applications that involve cutting and shaping wood. They are no longer used for medical procedures like symphysiotomy.

How can I ensure my chainsaw is properly maintained and safe to use?

Check components like chain tension, lubrication and blade sharpness. Clean the air filter regularly, watch for issues like kickback, replace worn parts, and properly fuel and store the saw. Wear protective clothing and follow safety procedures when operating.

What are some common chainsaw issues and their solutions?

Solutions include sharpening a dull chain, adjusting chain tension, cleaning a clogged air filter, replacing a worn clutch drum, checking chain lubrication flow, addressing broken clutch springs and checking the spark plug. Always address issues promptly.

How have chainsaws been portrayed in popular culture?

In horror movies, video games, comics and other media, chainsaws are often depicted as terrifying and grotesque weapons used by killers and monsters, likely due to their potential to maim victims. The startling noise adds to their shock value.

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