On the Water

Whale Harpoons, or Temple Toggle Irons

While the African American blacksmith and former slave Lewis Temple did not invent the harpoon toggle, his invention made it better. The first barb at the tip of the toggle iron was designed to penetrate the whale’s flesh. 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.

It was a harpooner’s responsibility to keep his tools sharp and well lubricated, to ensure that the toggle swiveled freely. Sometimes the men fashioned covers for the heads of their harpoons to keep them clean and dry until needed for use.

One of these irons, or gigs, is shown in the closed position for entering the whale’s flesh; the other is toggled open to show how much harder it was to pull out.

ID Number:
Temple, Lewis
Place Made:
New Bedford, Massachusetts
metal, wrought iron
39 1/4 in.; 99.695 cm
Jonathan Bourne through J. T. Brown

Other Views