It Takes A Tool To Make A Tool

There’s a famous saying, “It takes a tool a make a tool.”

A chimp uses a rock to smash ants

In fact there isn’t.

Googling that phrase (with quotes) gets you precisely 9 hits. But I think it should be a famous phrase. To state the obvious, if I want to make anything I need to use something to make it – so if I want to make a tool I need to use something to make it – a tool!

This doesn’t seem like much of a revelation but I think we can make 2 interesting conjectures from it:

Firstly, if I wanted to make a machine that cuts more accurately than any machine made before, I would, necessarily, have to use tools less accurate than it at cutting to make my new machine. It always seems a little odd, and amazing, that we use less refined tools to make more refined ones. I think this speaks well of human’s natural skill, adaptability and lateral  thinking ability.

We can also consider – as analogue to cutting things more precisely –  that, if we wanted to make a machine that measures length more accurately, then the only way to check it’s accuracy would be to use previous tools for measurement – tools that were less accurate at measuring. The question then becomes how can we really know the accuracy of what we measure?

(An obvious answer being statistical measures and the combined use of previous measuring tools)

Mathematics and logic ruin a perfectly good hypothetical question – again

The second, perhaps more interesting, conjecture is: If it takes a tool to make a tool was there a “first” tool?

Now, as seen by the chimp at the start, we have a wonderful set of tools at the end of arms. Hands are highly adaptable and are pretty vital in the use of most of our tools, from knife and fork to power drills. I am not going to consider hands as tools, though, as they come attached to our bodies. But we can use them to grab objects and “make” them a “tool” by their use. For example that chimp using a rock at the start of this “article”.

Or a hominid using a bone

But if we start to consider tools more complex than found objects things start to get interesting.

When you look at the computer you’re reading this on, the tool your using to read my mind garbage, there must have been an older tool (in fact hundreds of older tools) used to make it. That tool we’ve chosen must have had a parent, which must have had a parent, which must have had a parent, and so on and so on back through the centuries. Logically, at some point, these tools must have been less refined, less adapted to do their jobs, than the tools we have now. What I wonder is how far can we trace this tool trail back? Can we go back several millennia to the point where homo sapiens sapiens was not yet homo sapiens sapiens, where someone used a rock to break a twig and started of the whole chain?

Is there some sort of ur-tool from which all others derive? Or, is it more likely that the process began and has been repeated countless numbers of times, and each tool we use today had a hundred fathers and mothers some from thousands of years ago, some far more recent – perhaps only a couple of centuries when someone broke a branch on a leg? Is the real question how many tools does it make to make a tool?


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