Lewis Temple’s Real Innovation

Closeup view of the head of a real Temple toggle iron made by Lewis Temple. Temple’s original harpoon design included the dynamically upsweeping rear barb, a gently curving front barb and the ability of the barbs to “toggle,” or pivot on an axle and swing upon once planted deep into the blubber thus locking the iron in place. Later copies of Temple’s design did not include the artful, curved rear barb, generally looking much flatter instead, albeit perfectly effective. Kendall Collection, 2001.100.4122


Illustration taken from William Scoresby Jr.’s An Account of the Arctic Regions (Edinburgh, 1820) showing standard British Arctic whaling implements typically in use at the time.

Yankee whaling saw a few truly innovative technological improvements. Yankee whaleboats, for instance, became slimmer, lighter and quieter than their earlier European counterparts, with the loggerhead moved to the stern of the boat instead of having it in the bow giving greater control over the whale line during the capture. Americans installed try-works on shipboard enabling longer oceanic voyages for sperm whaling eliminating the need to return to shore to process the blubber into oil. Sperm whaling itself was, in the main, an 18th century American adventure along with the products of the hunt, spermaceti candles, an innovation too. The techniques of the hunt though, involving barbed, iron harpoons with wooden handles tied to a long length of rope, and killing lances with elliptical blade-like tips had not changed appreciably for hundreds of years.

Whenever a new idea evolved around the hunt, whalers of all nations were slow to adopt unproven techniques. The New Bedford blacksmith Lewis Temple (1800-1854), however, invented a harpoon that greatly improved the success rate of the American hunt.

Temple, born in Richmond, Virginia, was a free black in New Bedford pursuing his trade by the mid-1830s. His owned his own shop, located at the Walnut Street Wharf by 1845 and it was there that he invented a harpoon tip that toggled open. Many attempts to improve the holding power of harpoons had been made but few worked efficiently. It was common for whalers to successfully strike a whale only to lose it by the harpoon pulling free.

Illustrated page from Daniel C. Whitfield’s journal kept on board the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, Mass, 1856-1859, showing the four harpoon types used onboard: the Common Harpoons, Latest Toggle Harpoon, One Flued Harpoons, Oldest Toggle Harpoon. KWM #1033.

Temple’s invention functioned more like the ancient Eskimo-style harpoons. It had one cutting edge, one curved backward-sweeping barb and a reduced surface area making penetration easy. Once the point had been firmly planted deep into the whale blubber the whole tip could pivot open on a center fulcrum thus locking the point, either into or under the blubber. Blubber is excessively tough material filled with interlocking tendons and if the toggle iron opened under the blubber layer the harpoon could not pull free, it was locked in place.

By the 1850s blacksmiths all over New Bedford were replicating these Temple toggle irons. Lewis Temple worked in the whaling capitol of the world through its greatest period of success, the 1830s-1850s. This concentration of community interest, value and single-minded pursuit of one industry allowed him to marshal his creative energy and effectively create a new design within his chosen trade within an established industry. Temple never applied for a patent for his toggling harpoon invention and it was freely replicated, evolving into the “improved toggle” a harpoon type with a cast head making it easier to mass produce.

The standard improved toggle remained the harpoon of choice in the American whale fishery until its end in the 1920s.





Receipt for 50 toggle irons paid by W. & G.D. Watkins to Lewis Temple, 1853. ODHS # Mss51, Ser. 86, S-S 2, Folder 8






 Closeup view of the head of a standard improved toggle manufactured by J. Macy, Jr. & Co., circa 1870. Kendall Collection, 2001.100.2928.