When we think about a chainsaw, we are likely to associate it with cutting through trees.
Whilst you aren’t wrong, its origins didn’t start there – oh no. In fact, you might want to sit down for this one.
Chainsaws were originally invented to cut through bone – but – not for any old reason.
They were created to assist with childbirth. Gulp. Modern medicine has come a long, long way since the late 1700s, thankfully.
We can thank advancements in the medical field as to why women are not having to live with the consequences of the chainsaw after giving birth.
So, let’s take a look at what it was actually used for, and who invented the chainsaw.
These days, a woman has a C-section (also known as a Cesarean) when there are complications with the baby passing through the birth canal.
In fact, it can be predicted through scans whether it will be needed, or put into place last minute. It wasn’t the same back in the early 1700s.
If the baby was too big or lying the wrong way (perhaps feet first), then it became a very difficult birth.
Because the birth was likely to become horrific, with the potential that either the baby, mother, or both would die, a solution was created.
This was the symphysiotomy, which fortunately isn’t used anymore, phew.
Whilst helpful at the time, it didn’t come without its problems.
Whilst it likely did save a lot of lives, whether that was the mother’s or the baby’s, it usually left the woman with lasting effects.
These were known to be both mental, as well as physical – and here’s why.
The procedure involved using a small chainsaw (not like the kind you see today, though similar) and a knife to remove cartilage from the pelvis.
They would then manually widen the pelvis, creating extra room for the baby to pass through.
Do keep in mind that this whole process was done without any form of anesthesia. Ouch.
Not only that, it was often a very long and grueling process.
This meant that the mother was not only giving birth, but she had to endure a horrible procedure to do so that was extremely painful.
It is difficult to imagine that the chainsaw was invented to make the process of having a difficult birth a lot smoother.
Also, hygiene and the strict practices we see followed today, likely weren’t at the top of their list then.
It is not unknown that handwashing by surgeons only became noted in the 1800s, and some still didn’t even do that until around 200 years ago.
Around the year 1780, James Jeffray and John Aitken, two doctors based in Scotland decided to invent a small chainsaw to assist with difficult births.
Whilst it is much different to the big machinery we see chopping trees, it looks very similar.
The chainsaw was known as an osteotome. Coming from the Greek words osteo (which means ‘bone’) and tome (which means ‘cut’).
This scary and painful device was used throughout the 18th century on poor mothers who struggled to give birth.
Thankfully, once the C-section came in and was deemed safer around the 1940s, the symphysiotomy was no longer available.
Surprisingly, however, the first C-section where the woman stayed alive after the birth was in 1794 in the United States.
The person who performed the task was the woman’s husband. That sounds like a lot of pressure!
The first ever C-section which was documented was in the year 1610. Whilst successful, the mother died around 25 days later.
This could have been due to bad hygiene practices, or methods involved during the surgery.
Whilst the chainsaw assisted with childbirth, it was also brought in to help with other medical reasons, such as cutting through bone.
They realized that the tool would be strong and quick enough to do the job. It was around 100 years later that it became used for wood.
Not only that, the machine got bigger and is now the thing it is today – a far cry from the small chainsaw it used to be back in the 18th century.
You might think that a chainsaw is still used to cut bone during operations.
Well, you’d be right, but it is a much more updated version that fits with today’s modern medical practices.
The chainsaw we know to cut wood and trees was first patented by a man called Samuel Bens in 1905.
So really, not that long after the first symphysiotomy came about. It was for an electric chainsaw.
He had a plan to chop down these giant redwood trees for the use of construction.
Once Bens had patented the new electric chainsaw, there was an influx of people using them.
This spread from the United States to across the globe.
Now we don’t think twice about what a chainsaw is, and we most certainly don’t think about its origins, and that’s because most people don’t even know about where it first came from.
You are probably thinking that the chainsaw has always been used in some form of construction work, and you would be sort of right.
However, it first gained its use (albeit a smaller version) by helping women give birth.
Whilst it is much better to be healing from stitches these days, rather than a terribly painful broken pelvic, the modern chainsaw really has come far, and so has medical procedures thankfully!
So, the next time you see a chainsaw, think about how much it has advanced over the years, but also be thankful that we live through a time where we can give birth without having to stay fully awake as our pelvic bone is being broken into two.
Yes, that makes us cringe as well!
David has been a woodworker for most of his life — in his dad’s cabinet shop. After using the tools himself, he decided to share it his woodworking and power tools knowledge with DIYers. Read more about him