The unkindest cut...
The origin of the idea to put little blades on to a continuous moving chain has a strange origin unrelated to its modern-day application.
An imaginative German orthopaedic surgeon, Bernard Heine, created a device that he dubbed the Osteotome, around 1830. This was operated by a handle which turned a sprocket that drove the chain. The reason he wanted it was to improve the cutting of bones. Nowadays of course we do all we can to prevent that eventuality when using a chain saw.
There followed some spasmodic attempts in the USA to create chain-based logging devices. The first was by a Mr. Muir in California who invented a machine that weighed so much it required a crane to lift it, and unsurprisingly it failed commercially.
The 1861 Hamilton Saw was in the form of a spinning wheel, and the Riding Saw of the 1880s resembled a rowing machine that the operators sat inside, but neither created a breakthrough for machine sawing against the prevalent hand saws.
Nearly a century after Heine the modern chain saw was born when another German, Andreas Stihl (1896 - 1973) patented a chain saw for forestry, in 1926. It was in fact an electric model, weighing a hefty 63 kg.
Stihl's company really began to succeed once he developed a petrol-engined model in 1929. But by then he had a competitor, Emil Lerp, who in 1927 was the first to develop a petrol machine, around which he built his company Dolmar in Hamburg.
These early pre-war machines were all heavy and needed two men to lift them: some instead used ex-military wheel sets to transport them around the forests, which must have required huge effort.
Cut to the quick
World War Two brought frantic technical innovations, two among which were the commercial availability of aluminium alloys, and the increasing efficiency and miniaturization of engines, including 2-strokes.
The first mover in chain saw development in this new post-war world was the American, Joseph Buford Cox (1905-2002). He was exercised by the inefficiency of existing models and the need for frequent sharpening of the saw blades.
Cox was inspired by watching timber beetle larvae, which can eat happily through even good sound hardwood. They have C-shaped jaws, and this seemed to be the secret of their efficiency. Cox repaired to his workshop and created C-profile cutting blades which when (with his wife Violet) he formed the company Oregon Saw Chain in 1947, became a rapid success. This was the first chain of the modern 'chipper' type.
Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Robert McCullough had founded the McCullough Motors Corporation in 1943, to produce small petrol engines. In 1948 he introduced his first chain saw, Model 5-49 CS. By then he was working in California.
However Andreas Stihl had another major development up his sleeve: Stihl introduced the first truly one-man operated saw in 1950.
One little-known hero of chain saw innovation was Norwegian Rasmus Wiig, who in 1949 introduced the Comet, a diesel-engined saw, quite light for its day at 8.5kg. But the need to heat up its plug externally before use was a drag and sales never took off; he moved production to Sweden but after a few thousand were made between 1950 and 1954 the machine was withdrawn.
The Germans and Americans continued to dominate the market for many years until the rise of the Japanese from the 1970s/80s and the Chinese in the 2000s.
Notable landmarks were the Stihl S Contra lightweight machine in 1959: and the Homelite XL12 saw of 1963 with its Oregon 72D chain, the first 3/8' pitch chain model. This successful feature has continued to the present-day, much copied by rivals. Indeed Oregon has continued to sell its blades and blade bars to other manufacturers and remains the leading supplier of these pieces of equipment, with such makers as Draper using Oregon bars and chains.
In 1967 McCulloch launched the world's first electric-start petrol-engined chain saw, the 3-10E. You might think this would have revolutionized the industry, and indeed the feature can be found on a lot of Chinese saws. But it has not caught on with professional wood cutters who fear losing battery life in the great outdoors and literally being left powerless. So the hefty yank on a rope is still the way of starting most saws.
This has not stopped there being innovation. Makita have introduced on their DCS34 a 'rapid start function' that optimizes the fuel/air mix on start-up and claims to reduce the required pulling power by a massive 70%.
Down in Australia, Atom Industries patented their own electric chain saw starting system in 1972; and patented their 'turbo-action, self-cleaning air cleaner'. They also invented a reverse gear drill attachment to allow the drilling of fence posts and the stringing of wire. This excellent innovation has been much copied in professional machine circles.
Anti-vibration damping systems, quicker chain stop and other safety devices, further weight savings and better-balanced bodies are now common on modern models.
Saw where are they now?
What happened to the people and companies that created the modern-day chain saw as we know it?
Andreas Stihl's successors continue to run the private company that he founded.
Emil Lerp's Dolmar company is still manufacturing in Hamburg but in 1991 it was bought out by Makita, who make some of the best-regarded professional saws in the market.
James McCullough's firm diversified into aero engines and superchargers then re-focused from the 70s on horticulture, but in 1999 it went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Husqvarna of Sweden now own it.
Atom Industries could have been worldwide contenders through their innovations but they lost their Australian import tariff protection in 1974 and could not compete with cheaper imports. They stopped manufacturing saws in the late 1970s. Engine production carried on until 2005. They now concentrate on other markets.
As we have seen, Oregon are still successful and are part of Blount Group. They manufacture in the USA, China and elsewhere.
Hundreds of other manufacturers are now competing in the marketplace.
Chain saws have in recent years broken out of the woodcutting market. Modified machines with diamond dust-tipped blades, hydraulic drives and water cooling are now in use for cutting through stone, brick and concrete for building or rescue applications; or even for artistic sculpture. Ironically, these are safer machines to operate than those that cut into that tricky and unpredictable medium, the tree. Nevertheless, the world has changed completely for tree fellers in the last 80 years or so, and nowadays the chain devices have almost totally replaced the hand saw.