Why were chainsaws invented? The incredible origin of this tool

A real-life horror story about chainsaws.
Maia Mulko
Lumberjack using chainsaw while cutting tree in forest
Lumberjack using chainsaw while cutting tree in forest


  • Chainsaws were originally initially invented in Scotland to help with childbirth.
  • They were used to separate the mother's pelvic bones when they blocked the baby's descent into the birth canal.
  • Chainsaws weren't indeed used to cut wood until almost the 20th century.

Modern chainsaws are portable, motorized saws cut with a row of teeth affixed to a rotating chain across a guide bar. 

But they weren’t always like this. The history of the chainsaw is full of different models with different characteristics, although its evolution is mainly based on its operability. 

Prototype after prototype, chainsaws became easier to use and eventually replaced traditional axes and hand saws, revolutionizing timber production and other areas where cutting wood is required

Why were chainsaws invented? The incredible origin of this tool
Chain saw cuts a fallen tree

Chainsaws can be used for felling, limbing, bucking, pruning, or pollarding trees and to obtain firewood or furniture wood. Some types of chainsaws can also cut ice, stone, concrete, metals, and plastics. 

Other chainsaws are specifically prepared to cut meat and bones, such as the ones used in butcheries. 

This is not surprising, as chainsaws were initially invented for cutting bones. More specifically, they were used to remove parts of women's pelvic bone in labor to help with childbirth.

Here is that story. 

Before the chainsaw

The oldest predecessor of the chainsaw is the hand saw, which uses a blade with teeth to cut wood and other materials. 

The most ancient hand saws date from the Paleolithic Era, possibly originating sometime between 60,000 and 10,000 B.C., and are made of flint or stone bladelets with bone handles. 

Why were chainsaws invented? The incredible origin of this tool
Replica of Ancient Egyptian flint saw (3000 BC)

Metal blades for hand saws were built after the development of copper metallurgy about 9,000 years ago. In Ancient Egypt, there were saws made of copper and bronze. Hieroglyphics discovered in Egyptian monuments revealed that Egyptians used them to build furniture. 

In the Iron Age, saws began to be made of iron, and starting around 1500 B.C., they began to be made of steel, an alloy of iron and carbon. 

Where was the first chainsaw invented?

Fast forward to 1780.

In Scotland, surgeons John Aitken and James Jeffray designed the first chainsaw to help resolve obstructed labor. 

The term “obstructed labor” refers to a situation when the baby has difficulty (or failure) in descending through the birth canal for mechanical reasons (such as getting stuck between the mother’s pelvic bones). 

The condition may bring severe complications for the baby and the mother if not resolved. Nowadays, it is treated with cesarean section, but before this, obstructed labor would often result in the death of both mother and baby.

Before the invention of antiseptics and anesthetics in the 19th century, cesarean deliveries weren’t popular because they posed severe risks, such as infections and hemorrhages, which often killed the mother.

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The preferred method to widen the pelvis and allow childbirth in these cases was called symphysiotomy. This surgical procedure consisted of severing the pubic symphysis, a cartilaginous joint between the left and the right pelvic bones, to create more space for the baby to pass through the vagina. 

The procedure was performed without anesthesia and using small knives, which required the surgeon to act both quickly and accurately. 

John Aitken and James Jeffray created the first chainsaw to make this process easier for doctors and patients.  

The original design consisted of a watch-like chain with teeth held between two wooden handles, and it was operated with a hand crank. 

Apart from its use in obstructed labor, it was successful as a tool for excising diseased bones and joints for . Still, most of the 19th century, until in 1894, Italian surgeon and obstetrician Leonardo Gigli created the Gigli twisted wire saw.

The Gigli saw eventually replaced John Aitken and James Jeffrey's chainsaw. Even now that symphysiotomies are obsolete in developed countries, the Gigli saw is still utilized to perform amputations and cranial flaps.

Who invented the chainsaw?

Scottish doctors John Aitken and James Jeffray are often credited for inventing the first chainsaw, but there is a similar invention in the medical field that resembles modern chainsaws and is considered a precursor of them. 

The chain osteotome, created around 1830 by German orthopedist Bernhard Haine, consisted of a chain with small cutting teeth with the edges set at an angle; the chain moved around a guiding blade when turned with a handle. 

This tool was invented to cut bones; an updated version of it is still used in plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery, and dental implantation.

When were chainsaws first used to cut wood?

The chainsaw’s design has been modified to cut wood by several people since at least 1883. 

That year, an inventor from Flatlands, New York, patented an “endless chain saw”, a stationary chain sawing machine intended to rip boards by using a chain stretched between grooved drums. 

Another “endless chain saw” appears in a patent from 1905 belonging to Samuel J. Bens, who added a guide frame to adapt the design for the felling of large trees such as redwoods. 

The first portable chainsaw was patented in 1918 by Canadian millwright James Shand. However, he let his rights lapse and the German company Festo (now Festool) began producing saws using his design in 1933.

In 1926, German engineer Andreas Stihl created the first electric chainsaw, which weighed about 140 pounds (64 kilograms) and required two people to operate. It was intended for bucking (the process of cutting a tree into usable lengths). 

Stihl improved the design in 1930. He released an electric chainsaw to cut longer wood sections in log yards. Only one person could operate this Stihl chainsaw. 

The following model, released in 1933, weighed as little as 55 pounds (25 kilograms).

Stihl’s former business partner, Emil Lerp, created the first gasoline-powered chainsaw and founded the forestry company Dolmar to mass-produce it in 1927. Stihl also developed a gasoline-powered chainsaw in 1929 called the “tree-felling machine”.

Although both companies developed chainsaws around the same time, Andreas Stihl is credited as the inventor of the mobile and motorized chainsaw —the “father” of the chainsaw that we think about when we think about chainsaws— a long way apart from its gruesome origins.

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