A Look Back in History: Spring Valley Water Company Tunneling with Power Tools

Using compressed air for drilling and cutting in mining, and for tunneling operations proved itself an exceedingly useful resource for transmitting energy into the working-face (a surface where work, especially mining, is carried out).

The year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the portable electric drill’s invention. Metalworking tools have come a long way since its beginning.

Here’s a timeline of the development of metalworking tools over the years:

Tunneling with Air Drills, 1917. Workers using hand-held drills, connected to compressor cabling which runs from behind the photographer’s position.


  • Bellows were invented to soften hard metals by increasing a fire’s heat.


  • Bellows replaced was by water wheel-driven blowing cylinder, designed by professional engineer John Smeaton.


  • Water wheel-driven blowing cylinder was replaced by blasting machine, invented by John Wilkinson.
  • By this time, air compressors were used for mining and fabricating metals and providing ventilation to underground areas.


  • People began using air compressors to transmit energy.


  • First recorded pneumatic tool, the steam-powered percussion rock drill, was created by American inventor Simon Ingersoll of Ingersoll Rand.
  • Rock drill was a major advancement in mining and construction industries and replaced hand drill.


  • First compressor plant created in Paris by Austrian engineer Viktor Popp.
  • More innovations in air compression kept improving the upon the process and soon began incorporating electricity and pneumatic energy.​


  • S. Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker established machine shop in Baltimore Warehouse.
  • Black+Decker Manufacturing Co. developed and filed a patent application for a ½-inch portable drill that one person could operate. It would feature a universal electric motor which could run on alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC) and include a pistol-grip handle with a trigger control. Both features have been on electric drills ever since. The design of the electric drill, developed to allow the user to best hold the tool and control the drilling function, was inspired by gun manufacturer Colt’s handgun’s pistol grip and trigger.
Sullivan Air Compressor Ad 1917.


  • Black and Decker opened a 12,000 sq. ft. manufacturing plant in Towson, Md., where they made portable electric air compressors, the new drill and other products.

The workers at the tunneling location in the image at the top were using pneumatic tools and handheld drills to blast away at that rock face. This was certainly innovative in the drilling world. However, seeing that the men in the photo are wearing brimmed hats instead of hard hats, they still had a long way to go to innovate safety in the workplace.