On the Water

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 harpoon: 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.

ID Number:
Temple, Lewis
Place Made:
New Bedford, Massachusetts
ca. 1859
1 3/4 in x 33 1/2 in x 8 in; 4.445 cm x 85.09 cm x 20.32 cm
Gifts of Jonathan Bourne and Wilfred A. and Daniel J. Mack Jr

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