Inside the Collection

Albert Arnold’s 26-function combination tool


Photograph of compact Combination tool
Powerhouse Museum Collection object B544. Gift of Albert Arnold.

You can have your Swiss army knife or Leatherman. I’m impressed by this beautiful tool designed, patented and made by blacksmith Albert Arnold in Sydney in 1898. It is packed with functionality: ten spanners, a glass-cutter, cork screw, wire-cutter, screwdriver, bicycle repair kit, hammer and tack raiser.

Photograph of detail compact Combination tool
Powerhouse Museum Collection object B544. Gift of Albert Arnold. Side view.

Tool use is one of the defining features of our species. We marvel at other species’ use of tools, but we surpass all of them by far. Manufacture of tools is not just an interesting part of our evolutionary history: it probably drove evolution because it enabled us to modify our environment and thus increase our chance of survival; and it probably helped increase the complexity of our brains, as the recognition and discussion of problems led to the development of new tools, which in turn led to growth in the sophistication of language and the identification of new problems and solutions.

Historically, combination tools have flourished in parallel with the increasing diversity of single-purpose tools. Ancient stone hand axes were highly portable and suited to a range of tasks. The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University has an amazing third century AD Roman multi-tool. Multi-blade penknives have been popular since the sixteenth century. And sophisticated multi-tools, such as the (Bluetooth-enabled USB stick-toting) Swiss Army knife, sell in large numbers today.

Electronics have taken the concept in a fresh direction, making the smartphone a portable tool that has far more functionality than any previous device. Importantly, that functionality can grow rapidly without requiring modification of the physical tool.  But the most seductive and useful phone cannot replace the utility, or match the feel, of a well-made hand tool like Arnold’s.

Arnold was born in 1856, learned his trade as an apprentice, spent some time farming, and is said to have made improvements to the stump jump plough. From 1888 he worked at the railway workshops in the Sydney suburb of Eveleigh, where he applied his inventiveness to making many metal objects including a folding railway carriage key (object B545) and a machine for making springs. When he donated a group of objects to the Museum in 1929, his aim was to illustrate the blacksmith’s art. The donation included two more inventions (a second combination tool, B549, and a bandage winding machine, B542), a group of miniature blacksmith’s tools (B541) and other full-size tools. He seems to have been a man who took great pride in his trade. I suspect he was particularly proud of his 1898 combination tool.

Written by Debbie Rudder, Curator

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *