Temple Toggle Iron

Very little is known of Lewis Temple's early life. Born around 1800 to slave parents in Richmond, Virginia , by 1829 he had moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he married. By 1836, he had a blacksmith shop on a local wharf, where he made shipsmithing items like spikes, harpoons, rigging elements, cargo hooks, barrel hoop and other iron ship fittings.
Temple developed a simple but significant refinement to the harppon: the so-called Temple toggle iron or gig. This feature at the tip of a harpoon offered a more secure way to hook into a whale. Unfortunately, Temple never patented his idea, which swiftly achieved widespread application throughout the world's whale fisheries. He died in May 1854, unrecognized and in debt.
While Lewis Temple did not invent the toggle, his invention made it better. The first barb at the tip of the dart was designed to penetrate the whale's flesh, and the second barb also went straight in. A small wooden peg holding the lower barb in place would then break when the whale pulled away, allowing the barbed head to swivel away from the shaft. The new T-shape of the barb prevented the dart from pulling out of its wound.
Object Name
harpoon, toggle
date made
ca 1859
Temple, Lewis
Physical Description
iron (overall material)
wood (part material)
textile (part material)
overall: 1 3/4 in x 33 1/2 in x 8 in; 4.445 cm x 85.09 cm x 20.32 cm
Place Made
United States: Massachusetts, New Bedford
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Natural Resources
Cultures & Communities
On the Water exhibit
Expansion and Reform
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gifts of Wilfred A. and Daniel J. Mack Jr
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

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