Ingersoll steam drill

One firm pioneered the wheezy drills that broke into the 20th century and the modern age.


One firm pioneered the wheezy drills that broke into the 20th century and the modern age.

There is a famous tale in American folklore about a chap named ‘John Henry'. This apocryphal hero supposedly wanted to prove himself better than the new steam drills that had come on the scene.

In the myth, our hero on hearing the news that his job hand-drilling rock for blasting in a rail tunnel project ‘Big Bends' is under threat from the white heat of technology.

Desperate to prove his worth, John challenges the inventor of the new drill to a race, with a pledge that the machine be dismantled in the unlikely event of a human victory.

John Henry furiously piled steel stakes into the gabbro with his sledgehammer, and actually managed to defeat the steamy device, but it was a hollow victory as he collapsed and died at the finish... and of course mechanical power replaced human and animal power as soon as it was practical to do so.

Now, the first drills to come on to the scene were different to now. A steam drill is powered by a remote boiler while a length of steel hammered away at the rock face. It took the ingenuity of an American inventor named Simon Ingersoll in 1871 to come up with a device that rotated as well, effectively creating the first hammer drill.

Over the next thirty five years, many hundreds of drills were built, no doubt replacing scores of John Henry's. Compressed air replaced steam as the power source and by 1905 the Ingersoll-Sergeant drill company took over the Rand Drill co, formingIngersoll Rand.

Over the next century the company expanded, largely by acquiring other firms. Post-war the company were best known for road building equipment, with IR-branded machines consistently featuring in the top-selling plant lists.

By 2000 it owned among others Kryptonite locks, Von Duprin exit bars and for a time, Bobcat machinery and attachments. The twenty first century has seen challenging times for the company though. A new strategy lead the firm to sell Bobcat to Doosan Infracore in 2007, while much of the road building division went to Volvo CE. The famous drill section was sold to Atlas Copco, which being founded in 1873 is nearly as old as the Ingersoll
company itself.

In 2001 the place of incorporation was moved on paper from New Jersey to Bermuda for tax reasons. Today, Ingersoll Rand still owns the locks division and has expanded into climate control, buying Thermo King, Hussmann and most recently Trane HVAC.

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