The other day, I was doing a couple of nailing when my little nephew suddenly asked: “When was the nail got invented?” I could not quickly reply because I was so engrossed in what I was doing (but I actually didn’t know the exact date). But the little boy was insistent. So, I casually remarked, “It got invented a very long time ago.”
The invention of nails, of course, is one of the most important inventions of humanity, and its invention marked a significant leap in the evolution of society. Without the nails, humans could never have transitioned from living in caves to living in wooden houses. So, I think the question of when it got invented is apropos.
Table of Contents
The Origin & History of Nails
No one knows exactly when and who invented the first nail. Even if the archeologists are assiduous in digging in archeological sites, they can never tell with precision when and who created the first nails. They could only surmise the exact date when the nails got invented and the people who first used the workable nails.
Archeologists, however, concur with the idea that the first use of nails dates back to ancient Egypt around 3,400 B.C. Evidence shows that the ancient Egyptians used nails wrought in bronze.
Copper nails got also used in ancient times. But at a later time, as well as iron nails. However, the ancient Egyptian’s nails were made of bronze and had the same features as the nails you would usually buy today. So, humans, without a doubt have been using nails for more than a thousand years.
The Evolution of Nails
For thousands of years, nails got manually fashioned out of metals. Those who made these nails got referred to as nailers. Metalworkers would usually fashion out a slender metal shaft using heated metal. Then, they would hand these metal shafts to nailers. The nailers would hammer these thin shafts and transform these shafts into nails.
Only in the 19th Century did the manufacturing of nails become widespread due to the rise of slitting mills. Using slitting mills, metalworkers could mass-produce nails for selling. The first attempt to mass-produce nails using machines happened in 1790. Yet, mass production only became viable during the 1800s due to wires fashioned into nails.
In England, nails were essential during Medieval Times and used as an informal currency. However, before the American Revolution, England became the largest manufacturer of usable nails.
Nails were expensive during those times, and in the American Colonies, nails were scarce. So, people often burned unoccupied houses to gather the nails used to build those houses. However, such a practice became a problem that some states had to ban this practice.
The third president of the U.S., Thomas Jefferson, once claimed that he was a nail maker in his letter. He also mentioned that the growth of the nail trade in the American Colonies got impeded by the 1750 Iron Act that prohibited new slitting mills.
The production of wrought-iron nails continued until the 19th Century. The industry, however, evolved further, leading to the growing unpopularity of wrought-iron nails. So, softer nails became popular, and wrought iron got confined to specialized usage such as horseshoe nails.
Slitting mills, however, started in 1590, facilitating the production of nails. Yet, the manufacturing of nails got mechanized only sometime between 1790 to 1820. The mechanization of the production happened in England and the U.S.
The square- or cut-nail got invented during those years. Cut nails, of course, are more robust and got used for heavy-duty tasks.
Jacob Perkins first patented the manufacturing process of cut nails in the U.S. On the other hand, Joseph Dyer started it in England, setting up manufacturing operations in Birmingham. The height of his operation was in the 1860s.
Wire nails got fashioned out from wire coils. They were then reduced to a specific diameter and cut into rods to create nails. These nails are also referred to as French nails, considering that they came first from France.
As automation in the manufacturing industry developed, nail manufacturing also became automated, taking out the human factor in manufacturing large quantities of nails. Thus, the prices of nails went down.
Today, nails come in different varieties and applications. Most nails got fashioned from wires. Nevertheless, wire nails nowadays only refer to thinner gauge nails.
How Did the American Revolution Occasion the Nail Shortage?
There was a time when nails became scarce in continental America. This scarcity was partly due to the American Revolution. Since most nails got manufactured in England, when the thirteen colonies declared their independence from England, England halted the supply of nails to the colonies, leading to a nail shortage. Besides, burning old and unoccupied houses became widespread during those times.
As mentioned above, the cut-nail process of producing nails got jumpstarted by Jacob Perkins. The cut-nail process involves manufacturing nails from raw iron or sheets. The introduction of the cut-nail process led to the mass production of nails. So, the once precious and scarce nails become readily accessible to all of us.
Nowadays, you might take the value of a single nail for granted and might not pick up any bent nails because you got plenty of nail reserves. But if you would look back at the history of nails, you will understand how valuable nails were in the past. We are fortunate that we live in a time when mass production of nails made the nails readily available for our use.
You will find myriads of nails with different gauges and lengths as you shop around for nails. You will also find brad nails and wire nails that are like pins. Besides, you will find myriads of nailers with varying magazine types and capacities, making the life of the modern carpenter and woodworkers easy and convenient.
Liam is a 37-year-old woodworker and interior designer who loves to make every furniture project an art piece. He is very experienced in furniture design and woodworking project planning.