Tabitha Babbitt (1779-1853)

Sarah “Tabitha” Babbitt was an early American Shaker toolmaker and inventor.

A photo of Tabitha Babbitt on the left and the circular saw on the right.
Tabitha Babbitt and the circular saw

Image source: Author: Emanuele Gaber

As a member of the Harvard Shaker community, she invented the circular saw, the spinning wheel head, and dentures. Woodcutters, craftsmen, and carpenters around the world have Babbitt to thank for making their job easier and less dangerous.

Babbitt’s Life

A portrait of a young Sarah Tabitha Babbitt.
Sarah Tabitha Babbitt

Image source

Daughter of Seth and Elizabeth Babbitt, Tabitha Babbitt was born in Hardwick, Massachusetts. On August 12, 1793, she became a member of the Shakers of the Harvard Shaker community in Massachusetts and lead a simple life as a weaver. Babbitt died in December 1853.

Invention of the Circular Saw

A photo of a woman with an Irish spinning wheel, dated back to the 1900s, from the Library of Congress' Collection.
Woman with Irish spinning wheel (around 1900)

Image source:

Babbitt is credited with inventing the first circular saw for use in a sawmill in 1813. According to the Shakers, observing the men using the two-man whipsaw Babbitt noticed that half of their movement was wasted. Thus, she proposed a round blade to increase efficiency and connected to a water machine to reduce effort. She made her first circular saw in Albany, New York. Then, in the summer of 1948, a version of Babbitt’s saw, built to her specifications, was displayed in a Shaker exhibit at Fenimore House in Cooperstown, N. Y., on loan from the New York State Museum.

Circular Saw Controversy

Interior of a mill showing three men using a circular saw, Maberly, Ontario.
Interior of a mill in Maberly, Ontario

Image source: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

Because Babbitt did not patent her circular saw and the reference to her invention exists only in Shaker lore, there is controversy over whether she was the true first inventor of the saw. According to some accounts, two French men patented the circular saw in the United States after reading about Babbitt’s saw in Shaker papers. Moreover, M. Stephen Miller argues that Babbitt was not the first inventor of the circular saw, based upon the date that she joined the sect. He contends that Amos Bishop or Benjamin Bruce invented the circular saw at Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in 1793.

Her Other Inventions

Shaker Spinning Wheel Flax, dating back to 1941, by George V. Vezolles.
Shaker Spinning Wheel Flax (1941) by George V. Vezolles

Image source:,_Shaker_Spinning_Wheel_Flax,_c._1941,_NGA_25772.jpg

Also, she improved the spinning wheel head with a doubleheader that allows one to spin twice as much yarn in a short time. Additionally, she contributed to the invention of cutting multiple nails from a sheet of the iron instead of forging each nail individually. Further, she was amid her invention of false teeth during the time of her death.

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