The Ancient Egyptian tomb frescoes depicting the use of the bow drill as early as 2700 B.C. are the first indications of the metal boring bit. Although these very early examples were probably only used for making small holes or reaming. By the time the brace made its somewhat belated appearance in the tradesman’s kit (first depicted in the 15th century) the bit had become quite a developed accessory in its own right.
The first known wooden brace examples had the bits fixed directly into the stock much the same as Chairmakers used until comparatively recent times. However, with the advent of a removable wooden plug or pad, a range of bits could be accommodated in one “bit stock”.
One of the main advantages of the brace is the continuous rotary motion rather than the stop and start of the bow drills, and of course the vastly increased power that can be exacted on the double crank.
This led to a plethora of different designs, one of the most notable being the centre bit with the ability to cut and scribe clean holes up 3 1/2″ in diameter Another ingenious example is the cock plug bit, used to bore a hole in a cask of liquid, while the plug fills the hole until a tap can be inserted.
However without doubt the ingenuity shown by inventors in the USA during the last half of the nineteenth century is truly awesome. The profusion of patents issued runs into several hundreds, many of which were too complicated or impractical ever to have gained commercial recognition. Others were of huge success such as those of Russell Jennings, Irwin & Forstner Clarke & Swan to mention but a few. Now with the advent of machinery and the cordless electric drill most of these wonderful innovations are redundant.
For further reading I recommend “A Sourcebook of United States Patents for Bitstock Tools” by James F. Price, and of course the chapter “Bits & Pieces” of “The Ultimate Brace”.
Appeared 1997 – Toolshop Auctions Catalogue