Sarah “Tabitha” Babbitt was an early American Shaker purported to be a toolmaker and inventor.
As a member of the Harvard Shaker community, inventions credited to her include the circular saw, the spinning wheel head, and dentures. Woodcutters, craftsmen, and carpenters around the world have Tabitha Babbitt to thank for making their job easier and less dangerous.
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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, leading a simple life as a weaver. Babbitt died in December 1853 in Harvard, Massachusetts.
The invention of circular saw
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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, so she proposed to create a round blade to increase efficiency and connected to a water machine to reduce effort. The first circular saw she would make was in Albany, New York. 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.
Controversy over circular saw invention
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 by two French men after reading about Babbitt’s saw in Shaker papers. 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 the circular saw was invented at Mount Lebanon Shaker Village by Amos Bishop or Benjamin Bruce in 1793 —or not by a Shaker at all.
She has also improved the spinning wheel head, used to make the yarn, with a doubleheader that allows women to spin twice as much yarn in a short time. Additionally, Tabatha contributed to the invention of cutting multiple nails from a sheet of the iron instead of forging each nail individually. Eventually, it is believed that she was amid her invention of making false teeth at the time of her death.