Black & Decker has drilled its way into our homes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Back in the early '40s, Mr. Decker and Mr. Black -- that is, Alonzo G. "Chief" Decker Sr. and S. Duncan Black -- were pretty sure that there was a huge consumer hunger for affordable, easy-to-use power tools.

Their strongest clue was the number of reorders for their 1/4 -inch industrial drill from manufacturers hustling to supply the Allies with warplanes.

"We were astonished at the orders for replacement drills," recalls Alonzo G. Decker Jr., who joined the firm his father founded in 1930 and served as chief executive officer from 1964 to 1975, among other posts. Mr. Decker, who is 84 and just completed his 62nd year of full-time employment at the firm, was one of two Black & Decker officials who sat down with us recently in Towson, where the corporate headquarters are located, to talk about the history of home-use power tools.

When company officials checked with aircraft makers about the reorders, they found that the drills (used to make holes for rivets) were routinely being carted home -- and not religiously returned -- by the workers, mostly women, who wielded them all day.

Decker and Black, who founded the Black & Decker Manufacturing Co. in 1910 at Calvert and Lombard streets, had invented the one-person power drill in 1914. That drill, which had a pistol-style grip and trigger-type off-on switch, was patented in 1917. The drills were a success, as were other power tools such as grinders, sanders and saws that followed, but the Great Depression dried up orders and nearly drove Decker and Black out of business.

In 1942, they were determined it wouldn't happen again. "We formed a development committee," Mr. Decker recalls, with the goal of "thinking of all the ideas we could come up with, that we could have ready to sell when the war was over." He remembers telling the committee, "It would appear to me that there's going to be a market for electric drills to be used in the home."

In 1946, a year after the war ended, Black & Decker introduced the first 1/4 -inch home utility drill. It sold for $16.95, and the initial order of 80,000 "went . . . pouf," Mr. Decker says, laughing. "Just like spitting on a hot griddle."

A few weeks ago, when Black & Decker celebrated the 75th anniversary of the world's first pistol-grip, trigger-switch drill, and pulled the 50 millionth drill off a B&D; assembly line in Easton, it was just another media event for some people.

But for do-it-yourselfers -- and their fathers and grandfathers -- it was a nostalgic reminder of the empowerment that comes with affordable, maneuverable power tools. Without Mr. Decker and Mr. Black, and their successors and competitors through the years, do-it-yourself home rehabs would be only for the rich, the hefty, or the trained.

Early drills -- Mr. Decker believes they were mostly manufactured in Germany and used in the rail industry -- were huge devices that needed two men just to handle them and a third to switch the power off and on. The senior Decker and Black had already invented what they called the "Lectroflater." It was a fairly small device with a universal motor (meaning it could use either alternating or direct current, both in use in the city at that time) that forced air into the newfangled inflatable auto tires. The two had been contemplating designs for a better drill.

It was their habit to get together on Saturday mornings to do their "thinking." "As my mother told me," Mr. Decker says, "the two of them were sitting there at the kitchen table pondering" when both realized they were staring at the pieces of a Colt automatic pistol they were designing parts for.

"That's it!" they said. The pistol grip would make the drill easy to hold, and the trigger switch would make it easy to operate.

Forty-odd years later, after the company had introduced a host of new products both for industry and home, it occurred to Mr. Decker that the next step in drill evolution would be to cut the cord. New types of batteries developed during and after the war, combined with an extremely efficient motor, could make power tools cordless, he thought. He got his engineers together and told them to work on a cordless drill. The project was carried on in secret. "This is only in my mind, I don't have anything to back it up," he recalls telling them. "And don't tell anybody about it."

In 1961, Black & Decker introduced its first cordless drill. "It was very successful, in a small way," Mr. Decker says. But the silver-cadmium batteries it used cost $50, and that drove up the retail price. "It was a great advance," Mr. Decker says, "but people weren't prepared to pay $100 for it."

But Charles L. Costa, Black & Decker's vice president of administration and a 52-year veteran of the company, remembers what turned the cordless drill from an expensive novelty to an affordable necessity: It was the U.S. space program.

The development of transistors and smaller, cheaper batteries FTC that could power tools astronauts would use to sample the lunar surface and build a space station meant cordless drills and other tools could be light-weight and long-lasting.

"We take credit for being the first supplier of the do-it-yourself market," Mr. Costa says. "It started with power tools in the basement, then on the lawn and now" -- with lighter and less complicated tools -- "they're in ladies' toolboxes."

Mr. Costa sees cordless devices in everyone's future. "The consumer movement calling for environmental protection will bring about battery-driven lawn mowers, battery-driven cars. . . . The future of the consumer movement in power tools for the home will be cordless," he says. "Absolutely."

He also foresees more cordless products in industry -- telephone linemen with drills on their hips "like Colt .45s," marina workers using tools while "up to their armpits in water," and construction astronauts with "anti-torque-reactionary" tools that allow them to work weightless.

And it's a pretty safe bet that any future innovations will also make their way into the home-products line. Black & Decker has a history of betting on consumers.

Next: Is your house ready for winter?

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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