Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Small Thing But...

May I present to you, the twist drill.

A modern day version of what was a relatively new tool developed in the 1860's. A rather unassuming tool, and mostly taken for granted in the 21st century although it is used in manufacturing everything today from the car you drive to the chair you are sitting in now. Yes, the lowly twist drill, so taken for granted, so much ignored, so, so... boring! (pun intended!) But without this little keystone of modern industry, this may not have came to be:

That of course is the very Confederate ironclad ram built in a cornfield along the banks of North Carolina's Roanoke River in 1863 and early 1864. The same ironclad which was largely designed by Gilbert Elliot, a native North Carolinian of 19 or 20 years of age, with the help of John L. Porter who would polish the design and bring it to fruition. She was the monster that aided Major General Robert F. Hoke in re-capturing Plymouth, North Carolina which surrendered on April 20th , 1864. Without the Albemarle that would have been nearly impossible although Hoke's men outnumbered the Federals, they were well entrenched and had five US Navy gunboats in support. The place would be a tough nut to crack indeed. All of this is interesting but what has a drill have to do with all of it?
Gilbert Elliot had difficulty obtaining iron for the “skin” of the ram and would finally get his hands on some in the Autumn of 1863. Framing of Albemarles hull was completed in early October, and on the 6th, Albemarle was launched, sans armor, into the waters of the Roanoke River, which happened to be running high at the time.[1]
With the beast in the water and iron ready to hang, the work to transform her into an engine of war began. The problem was that the armor plates had to be pierced with a number of holes, one and a quarter inch in diameter, so they could be mounted to the hull and to each other. This was not an easy task, and it would be time consuming.
 In the Spring of 1864 the Confederacy did not have time to waste.

 As Gilbert Elliot puts it , in an article in “The Century” magazine:
“But one small engine and drill could be had, and it required, at the best, 20 minutes to drill an inch and a quarter hole through the plates, and it looked as if we would never accomplish the task.” Discouraging yes, but work continued. Now enter our subject, just now being devised. Elliot continues:
“But 'necessity is the mother of invention', one of my associates in the enterprise, Peter E. Smith, of Scotland Neck, North Carolina, invented and made a twist drill with which the work of drilling a hole could be done in four minutes, the drill cutting out the iron in shavings instead of fine powder.” [2] Thus the Albemarle was completed in the ensuing five and a half months, and be ready for the fight at Plymouth. This is not to say that the twist drill altered the course of the Civil War, but it did make one episode brighter for the Confederacy at a time when brightness was quickly fading into memory.
It is also said that this twist drill was the first twist drill devised but that honor goes to the Northerner, Stephen A. Morse of Massachusetts, who invented a twist drill in 1861 and patented his design in 1863. But he was not operating in a cornfield. Be that as it may, the twist drill is yet another invention that came out of the “First modern war”, and still has a place in society today even if it is in the shadows.
1) The CSS Albemarle and Peter Cushing: The Remarkable Confederate Ironclad and the Union Officer Who Sank It, page 82, Stemple, Jim 2011 McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers retrieved from Google books
2) Ibid, page 83
Albemarle image from the National Museum of the U.S. Navy

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