Who Invented the Pickaxe? (Invention Timeline Explained)

We all know that a pickaxe is a T-shaped tool used for prying and digging. It usually has a head with two ends, a sharp one and a blunt end attached to a long perpendicular handle usually made of wood, metal, or fiberglass. It’s a practical tool to use for gardening and agricultural purposes. You can use a pickaxe to pry, dig, or chisel away at soil, rocks, and other materials. However, have you ever wondered where the pickaxe came from and how it evolved? In this article, let’s dive headfirst into its history and how it has come to be a useful tool for weekend gardeners and farmers. 

Who invented the pickaxe?

The pickaxe is among the oldest tools known to mankind. Several artifacts from ancient civilizations show that mankind has been using picks or pickaxes for domestic and farming purposes and even in warfare. In addition, ancient men used bones or antlers to fashion out the head and attached them to wooden handles. 

Historians have unearthed evidence in Belgium and Germany, dating back as far as 35,000 years of mankind using pickaxes. Other historical accounts point to an Egyptian carpenter as among the first users of pickaxes who didn’t use them for hunting and gathering in the 16th century BC. Instead, the carpenter used stone as their material because wood was a scarce resource in Egypt.   

Native Americans also fashioned out pickaxes from flint or bone; and, depending on the design, determined whether the tool was used for farming or as a weapon. 

Pickaxe’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • Prehistoric man
    Prehistoric man crafted the first pickaxe from crude materials

    Prehistoric men crafted pickaxes using crude materials such as deer antlers, bones, and other similar materials. The earliest evidence pointed to the settlers in Belgium and Germany as among the first men who crafted and used pickaxes.

  • Egyptian carpenter
    Egyptian artisan crafted the stone pickaxe

    With wood a scarce commodity in ancient Egypt, an Egyptian carpenter made a pickaxe with stone. 

  • Medieval European soldiers
    Soldiers adapted pickaxe for warfare

    Although the pickaxe was generally used for agricultural purposes, Medieval European soldiers and conscripts adapted the tool for warfare. They made adjustments to the size and the weight. 

  • Native Americans
    Native Americans used pickaxe as both tool and weapon

    Native Americans used various materials to fashion their version of the pickaxe. Some used bone; some fashioned it out of deer antlers; some used igneous or metamorphic rock chipped to their desired shape; others used metals, especially after they made contact with colonizers.

  • Modern tool companies
    Workers used pickaxes and mandrills to build railroad tracks and mining purposes

    During modern times, railroad workers popularized pickaxes as they used the tool to help lay out the railroad system. Companies also adopted the pickaxe to create a mandrill, a tool used for mining operations. The difference between the two pickaxes is in the length of the wooden handle. The railroad pickaxe had a longer handle, which also provided stability, whereas the mandrill had a shorter handle, better suited for confined, underground spaces.

When was the first pickaxe invented?

Although no one could say when and where exactly the pickaxe was invented, archeological evidence points to the early Belgian and Germanic settlers as among the first users of pickaxes during ancient times. Historical accounts say they used the tool, fashioned out from bone or deer antlers, 35,000 years ago.  

Historical accounts also point to an Egyptian carpenter who used a stone pickaxe in the 16th century BC. He fashioned out the tool from stone because wood was a pretty scarce commodity during that time. Fast forward to medieval times, and commoners and soldiers adapted the pickaxes to be effective in warfare. While agricultural pickaxes were also effective as a weapon, they modified the tool, weight, and design and made intimidating and effective weapons. 

Native Americans also fashioned out pickaxes for both farming and weaponry use. They used various materials such as deer antlers, bone, metamorphic or igneous rocks, and metal as the head. They generally used wood as their handle. 

During modern times, workers popularized the use of pickaxes, especially during the building of the railroad tracks across the United States, thereby giving rise to the term railroad pickaxes. Miners also used a version of the pickaxe called the mandrill. It had a shorter handle which was suitable for the underground environment they worked in the mines. Alpinists, people who love mountaineering and climbing ice- and snow-covered peaks, also adapted the pickaxe to create their ice picks. Firefighters also have their version of the pickaxe, although instead of having two ends, it has an ax and a tip which they use efficiently in their profession.

A brief history of pickaxes

Various historical evidence suggested that as early as 35000 years ago, the early settlers in Belgium and Germany used their version of pickaxes. In addition, archeological data state that prehistoric men used bone or deer antlers as the pickaxe head, which was attached to wooden handles. Also, historians point to an Egyptian carpenter as one of the innovators of the pickaxe as he fashioned his tool using stone as wood was a scarce resource during those times. 

During the Middle Ages, soldiers and farmers used the pickaxe as a tool and a weapon. Soldiers modified the pickaxe design to create lighter, more mobile, and intimidating weapons that were efficient in battle. Farmers also used their pickaxes to defend themselves from bandits, although their tools were difficult to wield. 

Native Americans also featured prominently in the history of pickaxes as they used the implement as a tool and weapon. They crafted the heads using bone, deer antlers, metamorphic or igneous rocks, and later metal. They attached the heads to wooden handles, serving agricultural and wartime purposes. 

During modern times, railroad workers popularized the use of pickaxes as they built railroad tracks across the continental United States. Miners also used a version of the pickaxe called mandrill, which had a shorter handle. It was a more suitable tool for their confined underground working environment. Alpinists also fashioned their version of the pickaxe as they modified the design to come up with the ice pick. They used this to scale snow- and ice-covered peaks to provide traction. Firefighters also changed the pickaxe as they have a version where one end is an ax, and the other is a tip which they use effectively when they respond to emergencies. 

The pickaxe timeline

  1. 35000 BC
    Early Belgian and German settlers used crude pickaxes

    Archeological evidence showed that early settlers in Belgium and Germany were among the first to use the pickaxe. They used bone or deer antlers which they sharpened and attached to a wood handle as a tool for hunting and gathering.

  2. 16<sup>th</sup> century BC
    Egyptian carpenter innovated pickaxe

    An Egyptian carpenter innovated the pickaxe as he fashioned the tool from stone. He didn’t have enough wood because it was such a scarce commodity during that time.

  3. Medieval Europeans
    Adapted the pickaxe for military purposes

    Medieval soldiers and commoners in Europe used pickaxes for agricultural and warfare purposes. While farmers and commoners defended themselves from bandits using the unwieldy pickaxe, soldiers modified the pickaxe, making them lighter and more intimidating.

  4. Modern times
    Workers used pickaxes for a variety of jobs

    Railroad workers built the railroad tracks spanning the United States territory using pickaxes. Miners used mandrills, a pickaxe with a shorter handle, as it was more suitable for their underground and confined quarters. 

Where was the pickaxe invented?

Historical accounts state that the pickaxe was invented, although crudely, by early settlers in territories which are now modern-day Belgium and Germany. The settlers used bones and deer antlers that they sharpened and attached to wooden handles as a hunting and gathering tool. 

Other historians also point to an Egyptian carpenter who fashioned his tool from stone, owing to the scarcity of wood in Egypt in the 16th century BC. Medieval Europeans also handled pickaxes well and used them forth agricultural and warfare purposes. Native American tribes also crafted pickaxes using materials such as deer antlers, bones, rocks, and metal. 

Railroad pickaxes and mandrills were popularized during the modern times in the United States primarily as they were instrumental in laying the railroad tracks system across the continent and mining precious resources.

The importance of pickaxes

  • Used as an agricultural tool

    The early pickaxe, even crudely crafted ones made from bone and other materials, was used for agricultural purposes. People used it to dig the soil so they could plant their seeds.

  • They served as a military weapon

    Although an agricultural pickaxe was unwieldy and heavy to use during combat, soldiers during the medieval times modified it. They made it lighter and more mobile, creating a weapon that was pretty intimidating and damaging for cavalry and close combat.

  • They shaped industries and communities

    The pickaxe was used in the construction of buildings and communities as workers used them to lay out the foundation and build structures. Workers wielding pickaxes and similar tools built railroad systems, mining shafts, and other industrial structures.

  • They inspired innovation

    Alpinists modified the design of the pickaxe and came up with their version, the ice pick. They used the implement when they trekked the snow- and ice-covered peaks to provide traction and purchase. Firefighters also modified the design and came up with a tool such as an ax head to one side and a tip on the other which they use efficiently when responding to emergencies.

Pickaxes by the numbers

  • Three feet is the usual length of the handle of a pickaxe. However, British military pickaxes were stipulated to be exactly three feet for measuring in the field.
  • 2.5 Two and a half pounds is the usual weight of a pickaxe head. This may be a bit lighter but is still effective when wielded properly.
  • 35000 Historical accounts point to early German and Belgian settlers using crude pickaxes during period. 35000 BC.
  • 1827This is the year the first railroad tracks were laid in the United States. Railroad workers used pickaxes and other tools to create the railroad system that spanned the continent. 

Five facts about pickaxes

  • The term pickaxe is an alteration

    Linguists point out that the term pickaxe is an alteration of the Middle-English picas, which was related to the Anglo-French piceis; and an offshoot of the Medieval Latin term picosa.

  • A military pickaxe has a regulated specification.

    The military pickaxe, especially those used by the British army, is a highly regulated tool. The handle measures exactly three feet while the heads weigh 2.5 lbs.

  • Picks and pickaxes are basically the same.

    Picks and pickaxes are the same tools. They both have heads with two sides and are used for agricultural purposes. The difference is that picks have two pointed ends while pickaxes have a blunt end and a sharpened end.

  • The pickaxe spawned different implements

    Several gardening tools came from the design of pickaxes. Hoes, hatchets, and picks are among the tools which were probably inspired by the bigger pickaxes.

  • The pickaxe now varies in size and weight.

    Advances in technology and materials have ensured that the pickaxe now has different sizes and weights depending on the intended use.

FAQs about the pickaxe

  • What is a pickaxe handle made of?

     The pickaxe handle is usually made of hickory wood, but other handles are made of steel and fiberglass. 

  • What is the difference between a pickaxe and a pick?

     The only difference between a pickaxe and a pick is their design. A pickaxe has a sharp and blunt side, while a pick has two tapered sides. They’re used for the same purposes, though.

  • How long is the pickaxe handle?

    The pickaxe handle can be anywhere from 3 feet to 4 feet. However, military pickaxes, especially the ones used by the British Army, have a regulated three feet length.

  • How did ancient people shape pickaxe heads?

     Ancient men sharpened and shaped their pickaxe heads by chipping away at the bones, antlers, or stones on surfaces or using other implements.

  • Why did miners shorten their pickaxe?

     The regular pickaxe had a long handle which was unsafe for the mining environment. Miners shortened the handle of the pickaxe to make them more suitable for their workspace. 

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