... it was the most important single invention in the whole history of whaling. It resulted in the capture of a far greater proportion of whales that were struck than had before been possible.
—Clifford Ashley, The Yankee Whaler
Born in 1800 as a slave in Richmond, Virginia, Lewis Temple lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts from 1830 to 1854, where he had his own waterfront blacksmith shop.
At that time New England was the capital of the whaling industry. As a blacksmith he forged whaling harpoons and, through his work, he learned that the whales frequently escaped by vigorously twisting and turning, thus detaching the harpoon. In 1848 he invented a harpoon that revolutionized the technology of the whaling industry, as it was the first improvement in harpoons for several centuries.
Known as the "Temple Toggle" or the "Temple Iron," Temple fashioned a harpoon with a pivoting head that locked into the whale's flesh, thereby preventing the harpoon from being dislodged by the thrashing movements of the whale. Despite whalers' initial unwillingness to use the harpoon, it soon proved to be more effective than the standard barbed head harpoon. Temple's Iron became the universal harpoon and it is still used today in some parts of the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, Lewis Temple never patented his invention and subsequent refinements and mass production by his competitors obscured the significance of his invention and innovation. However, he was still successful enough that he needed to build a larger shop. During a visit to the construction site, he fell into a hole left open by a negligent city worker and never fully recovered from his injuries. Temple sued the city and was awarded $2,000 by the court.
A few weeks later Temple died, unacknowledged and destitute. Today, he is presented as one of New Bedford's most ingenious citizens. In 1987, a life-size statue of Lewis Temple was erected on the lawn of the New Bedford Free Public Library.
Eight Black American Inventors, R.C. Hayden. Addison-Wesley, 1972.
Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers, Patricia C. McKissack, Fredrick L. McKissack. Scholastic Trade, 1999.
Scrimshaw by Robert Weiss: Lewis Temple
Ocean Planet: Toggle iron harpoon
Hall of Black Achievement: Lewis Temple
Kendall Whaling Museum/"Heroes in the Ships": African Americans in the Whaling Industry
New Bedford Area Visitor Guide - Lewis Temple Memorial
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