Temple Toggle Iron

Original content by: Dean Hantzopoulos Dayne Rugh

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About This Artifact

This example of what is called a "Temple Toggle" harpoon is the innovation of African American blacksmith Lewis Temple.  Designed in 1845, the Temple Toggle employed the use of a pivoting iron head at the tip of the harpoon, which allowed the iron to swivel and lock in place upon penetrating the body of a whale, minimizing any risk of the harpoon pulling out.  This simple, yet ground-breaking innovation revolutionized the whaling industry unlike any invention before.  Having a harpoon head that was able to lock in place within the body of the whale meant that more whales could be successfully harpooned and minimized the risk of losing a whale.  Author and maritime historian Clifford Ashley sums up Temple's Toggle Iron stating in 1926, "It is safe to say that the 'Temple Toggle' was the most important single invention in the whole history of whaling.  It resulted in the capture of a far greater proportion of the whales that were struck than had before been possible."

This innovation was among the first of many in the whaling industry, and came during the golden age of American shipbuilding and whaling in the mid-nineteenth century.  At a time where many hundreds of whale ships were scouring the globe for whales, competition was prominent and whalers needed new forms of technology to compete with others as well as make more profitable, longer lasting voyages.  Although a great innovation for its time, the Temple Toggle would be improved again in the form of what is known as a darting gun.  This employed the use of a Temple Toggle iron that could be shot from a gun and into the whale, as opposed to requiring it to be manually thrown into the whale.  This further increased the power and efficiency in catching whales.  

A point of interest on this harpoon is that you'll find the letters "BK PLA" inscribed on the back.  This tells us that this harpoon came from the whaling bark Platina.  It is likely that this harpoon saw its fair share of action and adventure on at least one of Platina's whaling voyages.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Does it seem fair that other blacksmiths and whale craft manufacturers copied Temple's design for their own use even though Temple never patented the design? What do you think would have been different if he did?
  2. Consider the importance of Temple's invention. Now that more whales could be successfully caught, does it seem to have been a dangerous invention to the existence of whales? What are some moral and ethical implications that are hidden in this invention?
  3. Inscriptions on items can reveal a vast amount of information related to an artifact's orgins. How are these kinds of inscriptions important to learning more about the artifact?