Intentions and Inventions

Time and again, the chronicles of successful companies prove that plans evolve and outcomes often deviate from (and even outgrow) the visions of their founders. The course of Black & Decker’s business is a perfect example.

When 23-year-old entrepreneurs Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker opened their small machine shop nearly 100 years ago, they didn’t set out to become the world’s largest producer of tools and accessories. In fact, they didn’t set their sights on tools at all.

With an investment of $1,200, in 1910 the two men started a company to build machines that would automate common tasks such as capping milk bottles, dipping candy, picking cotton and adding numbers. The business soon grew from a generalized machine shop that developed a wide range of products to a firm with a single focus, producing the first portable electric drill with a pistol grip, and then metamorphosed into a manufacturer of wildly diverse products.

While working to redesign components of the Colt 45 pistol, the founders of Black & Decker envisioned an application for making power drills easier to operate. Their first drill was not the first portable electric model ever made (if you can call the earlier 50-pound tools portable). But in 1916 it was the first electric drill with a pistol grip and a trigger switch. This was a milestone because it was the first drill to require only one person to operate it. It would be 30 years before the consumer version of the portable electric drill was marketed, another Black & Decker first.

During the 1920s, the company applied the pistol grip/trigger design to other industrial power tools. Meanwhile, as the business grew, so did Decker’s son, Alonzo Decker Jr. As a teen, his after-school job was to sweep floors at the shop. After graduating from college, he worked his way up to become an influential company leader and eventually CEO and chairman of the board. When he learned that factory workers were borrowing drills for home use, he recognized the need for a consumer line of power tools. In 1946 Black & Decker introduced its Home Utility line, selling portable electric drills to consumers (a significant jumpstart for the do-it-yourself trend).

Its 1961 development of the first cordless electric drill made Black & Decker a logical choice for developing space-age solutions. In 1966 Martin Marietta Corp. asked Black & Decker to create a zero-impact wrench that could spin bolts in zero gravity, without spinning the Gemini astronauts who operated it. A few years later, the company developed a no-torque cordless power head to remove plugs of lunar dust during the Apollo mission.

In 1971, Apollo astronauts removed core samples from the moon using a lunar surface drill that was powered by a uniquely developed Black & Decker drill head (see photo at the top of the page).

Even after shooting for the stars, Black & Decker kept its feet firmly planted on Earth. Throughout the 20th century and beyond, the company has continued to launch a variety of tools and other products for yards, garages, kitchens and bathrooms as well as DIYers’ workshops, making life a little easier on the home frontier as well as in space.

The original Black & Decker drill, introduced in 1917, was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution in 1989.