100 Years of Innovation: History of the Electric Drill

By Jeff Griffin | Feb 15, 2016
2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the portable electric drill’s invention. 




This year marks the 100th anniversary of the portable electric drill’s invention. A century ago, the Black + Decker Manufacturing Co. (now Stanley Black + Decker) developed and filed a patent application for a ½-inch portable drill that one person could operate. It had a universal electric motor, which could run on alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC) and the pistol-grip handle with a trigger control. Both features have been on electric drills ever since.

The original portable drill, assembled in 1916, is at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Electric drills were in operation long before 1916, but they were large, stationary machines used in industrial and manufacturing facilities. Black + Decker’s drill was the first time an electric drill came as a lightweight, portable tool.

In 1910, S. Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker established a machine shop in a Baltimore warehouse. Gun manufacturer Colt was among the shop’s clients. According to a 1992 Baltimore Sun article, Black and Decker were considering the design of the electric drill they were developing and figuring out how the user could best hold the tool and control the drilling function. Nearby was a Colt handgun. Its pistol grip and trigger inspired the new drill.

In 1917, Black + Decker opened a 12,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Towson, Md., where they made portable electric air compressors, the new drill and other products.

The first drills were intended for industrial use. The new product filled a need, and sales increased, but it remained an in-plant tool because there was no home-improvement market and the cost was too high for general consumers. When plant supervisors noticed employees taking drills home to use on projects, they recognized the do-it-yourself market potential.

Distribution spreads, company changes

By 1921, Black + Decker was advertising locally, and the company even had a full-page ad in the Saturday Evening Post, targeting a national consumer market. Company history cites 1923 as the year it began offering a low-priced, portable electric drill to nonprofessionals. The company created mobile classrooms in buses to teach distributors how to sell power tools.

Like most companies, Black + Decker struggled through the Depression. However, World War II brought government contracts for making war material for America and its allies. In 1946, the company introduced the first line of home power tools, including ¼-inch and ½-inch drills, drill stands and accessories. In 1961, it introduced the first cordless electric drill, powered by a nickel-cadmium battery.

Meanwhile, Black + Decker contracted with Martin Marietta to design tools for NASA, including a zero-impact wrench that turned bolts without spinning the astronaut. Black + Decker later designed a cordless rotary hammer drill for the Apollo space program, which was used to extract rock samples and could operate at extreme temperatures and in zero-atmosphere conditions.

Over the years, Black + Decker acquired a variety of companies, including General Electric’s small appliance division as well as toolmakers DeWalt and Porter-Cable. In 2010, Black + Decker merged with Stanley Works, bringing both companies’ tools under the current Stanley Black + Decker umbrella.

Other manufacturers step up

In the mid-to-late 1920s, electricians and workers in other trades were using Black + Decker tools, and other manufacturers began to develop similar tools for professionals.

In 1924, A.H. Peterson developed the Hole-Shooter, a lightweight, portable drill that a user could operate with one hand. After fire destroyed Peterson’s facility, Milwaukee Electric Tool Co. acquired the product. Milwaukee made the drill more durable and developed more powerful drills, including a right-angle drill and variations to the basic drill/driver in both corded and cordless versions, all designed for professional tool users.

Bosch introduced an electropneumatic, handheld rotary hammer in 1932 and, soon thereafter, produced its first electric drills. Bosch launched the Brute breaker hammer in 1950, and the company introduced its first cordless drill in 1978. The first Bosch cordless hammer drill came to market in 1984.

In 2005, Milwaukee introduced lithium-ion batteries, leading to a fundamental shift in cordless-tool technology. The batteries contributed to a change in form, features and function. Since then, significant advances in tool and battery electronics—coupled with advancements in lithium-ion batteries—have changed the possibilities for drills and other cordless tools. Lithium-ion batteries have significantly improved, and toolmakers aggressively promote their battery brands.

In 2004, Makita developed a brushless motor for a fastening tool for the defense and aerospace industries, and, in 2009, Makita introduced an impact driver with a brushless motor. Manufacturers say tools with brushless motors have as much or more power than tools with conventional “brushed” motors. They also operate more efficiently and are more durable.

This year, Milwaukee unveiled One-Key “smart” tools, including drills. Such a tool can remember settings that achieved the best results, tell the user how it’s performing and how to maximize its potential, and interact with One-Key’s tool management system, so the user can locate it in real time.

Black + Decker 
and DeWalt

Ultimately, Black + Decker entered the professional tool market in 1991 through DeWalt. The company had acquired DeWalt more than 30 years before, when it was best known for its radial-arm saw. DeWalt continued to add shop and plant tools to its product line. In 1989, DeWalt stopped North American production of its radial-arm saws due to dwindling demand.

“For a time, DeWalt was near dormant,” said Chris Keffer, DeWalt vice president. “In 1991, the decision was made to relaunch the DeWalt brand with a new line of professional power tools.”

Soon after, DeWalt introduced power tools and accessories designed specifically for professionals. Electric drills were a key element in the product line. Also included was the first combination drill/driver hammer drill.

Two years later, DeWalt launched a cordless power tool system with more than 30 new cordless tools that included drill/drivers and the first combination drill/driver hammer drill, along with saws and a variety of other products.

History repeats with new innovations

The history of this tool is full of major breakthroughs.

“The increases in voltages changed the landscape of what drills could do,” Keffer said. “With more power, chuck designs changed, especially for electricians. The lithium-ion battery for tools was a big breakthrough in the cordless power-tool market, and brushless motors provide more power, more run time, and, in some cases, more control.”

Today, the DeWalt Power Tools line consists of more than 200 power tools and more than 800 accessories.

Today’s varied electric drill products range from 12-volt (V) “pocket” drills to powerful 18V drill drivers. Specialty products have evolved, including hammer drills and rotary hammers with built-in LED lights to illuminate the work area. “Smart” drills automatically adjust the power draw to the task at hand and wirelessly communicate information about the tool to the user and cloud-based tool-management program.

While these tools have changed radically over the years, certain design elements have remained the same. For example, Mr. Black and Mr. Decker probably could never have imagined that, 100 years later, even the most modern tools have pistol-style grips and trigger controls.

About The Author

GRIFFIN, a construction journalist from Oklahoma City, can be reached at [email protected].





featured Video


New from Lutron: Lumaris tape light

Want an easier way to do tunable white tape light?


Related Articles