Tools through the ages

Read about some tools that changed the whole way of life for mankind.

Tasks for this text can be found in chapter 2.2 of Tracks PRO.


Think back for a moment about what you did yesterday, from when you got up in the morning to when you went to bed. You very probably brushed your teeth, so you used a toothbrush. You ate several meals, so it’s likely that you used cutlery: a knife, a fork and a spoon. You might have needed a key to open a door or start an engine, and you might be one of the 30% of people who wear glasses or contact lenses. We rely on tools to get us through the day, and since the dawn of civilization humans have used tools to build and shape the world we live in.

We are not the only species which uses tools. Asian elephants change the shape of branches until they have the perfect fly swatter, crows craft twigs, leaves and even their own feathers into tools which they then use when they are building nests, dolphins use sponges as tools to look for food in the sand at the bottom of the sea, and apes use rocks, twigs and other things lying around as tools. These are just some examples of tool users in the animal kingdom. But one thing that helped human beings evolve into who we are today was our ability to make more and more advanced tools.

Human beings are not as fast as some animals, not as strong as others, but by inventing tools we have managed to compensate for these weaknesses and not only defend ourselves but also hunt animals which are faster and stronger than us. Archaeologists believe the axe was the first proper hand-held tool our ancestors invented, millions of years ago. Made from reindeer antlers, hard stone or flint and with a wooden handle it was at the time the most advanced tool on the planet.

When humans first discovered that  clay could be formed into different shapes and then baked to make it hard, it was not long before one of humanity’s oldest and most valuable tools were invented. The pot made it possible for people to carry water, so they could roam further away from sources of fresh water.  This simple vessel also allowed them to carry, cook, serve and store their food, and they could preserve it to get through droughts or long winters.

Another extremely simple but highly significant tool is the fish hook. The earliest fish hooks were probably carved out of wood more than 30,000 years ago. Other materials which have been used are animal bone, horns, shells and even thorns from bushes. While there is an enormous variety of fish hooks, they are almost always attached to a line or lure. They have become less common in commercial fishing today because of the use of massive nets, but sports fishermen still use them.

Another one of the simplest but also one of the most useful tools is the needle. Humans have been making them for more than 20,000 years, first from bone. They need to be long, slender, and have a pointed tip with a small hole in it. They can be used to stitch fabric and even human skin. Needles have not only had a practical function; they have been used to add decoration to clothes and other products made from fabric.

About 8000 years ago human beings began using metal, which was a major technological breakthrough. This meant that sturdier hooks and needles could be made from bronze or iron. The use of metal also led to tools such as the knife. Some experts would say that the knife is in fact the most important tool in human history. We have used knives to hunt animals, prepare food, make clothes and shelter, defend ourselves and basically help us survive as a species, and it’s certainly the one thing Bear Grylls always has with him on an adventure in the wilderness.

We know from illustrations on the walls of tombs that the ancient Egyptians used another metal tool, the saw, to cut fairly hard materials such as wood more than 4000 years ago. They were also used to carry out executions, and can be considered one of the first forms of medical equipment, as saws were used to cut through bones.

When we think of pens and pencils we perhaps first and foremost think of writing and texts, but carpenters and many other tradesmen would be lost without them. Many people think pencils contain lead, and in many languages the word for pencil has the word for lead in it, like blyant in Norwegian, but in actual fact this extremely useful tool is made of graphite and wood. Pens, on the other hand, disperse a trail of ink on the surface of whatever is being used to write on. One of the greatest things about these tools is that they are very cheap, reliable and convenient, and of course they will not let you down during a power cut.

AbacusAbacusOther very significant tools in the history of human development are the abacus, the compass and weighing scales. Also known as a counting frame, the abacus is a calculating tool that is still widely used by merchants, traders and clerks in Africa and the Middle East, China and Japan. It uses beads which slide along wires or rods, and an experienced abacus user can often compute sums faster than an average person with a modern electronic calculator.

Until the relatively recent arrival of satellite navigation, or sat nav, in our daily lives, the tool that people used to find their way around was the compass. From anywhere on earth a compass will point north, a discovery that changed the world, as it allowed explorers to navigate across oceans and discover new lands and new people. The magnetic compass was invented over 2000 years ago in China, and was not used in Europe until over 1000 years later.

The oldest evidence for the existence of weighing scales is 4000 years old, and was found in the Indus River valley, in present-day Pakistan. These first scales were actually balances, using two plates attached to an overhead beam, which was fixed on a central pole. The object being measured was placed on one plate, and weight-setting stones were put on the other, until they balanced. When trading developed, merchants needed a way to assess the value goods, so scales played a crucial role in commerce.

Many of the inventions mentioned in this text are still widely used today, while others have developed and transformed into modern versions of the same tool. As technology advances human beings are relying more and more on electronic devices, with the shift from analogue to digital affecting many tools. Some would say that old-fashioned scales are more dependable than digital scales, and last a lot longer. But on the other hand modern bathroom scales come with Wi-fi, and enable you to track your body weight and body fat percentage, and can give you updates using apps. Who knows what the tools of the future will be able to do.