In honor of National Knife Day, we take a look back at the evolution of this historic tool.
Your cell phone isn’t the only piece of mind-blowing technology in your pocket. If you’re carrying a pocketknife (and you should be), you’re not only carrying humankind’s first technology, but a vital technology that has undergone many pivotal transformations from its first iteration to its most recent.
The First Knife: 500,000 BCE
Today, on National Knife Day, we celebrate the first knife—an edge that helped human beings in our eventual rise to top of the food chain. Recent discoveries by paleoanthropologists have pushed back the date of the first stone knife. Originally, stone knives were thought to date to the late Stone Age. Then new discoveries moved that date back to the Middle Stone Age, and then even earlier to over 300,000 years ago when they were thought to have been made by Neanderthals. The most recent discoveries have moved that date back even further. The knife can truly be said to be our first—and among our most important—technologies. In fact, in 2005, Forbes.com readers ranked it as THE most important tool in history.
An ancient stone blade; by Paul Bedson, public domain (CC0) via Wikimedia Commons
The First Metal Knives: 8000–3500 BCE
About 10,000 years ago, human beings invented copper-smithing and began making knives from this relatively soft and malleable metal. While stone knives can be extremely sharp, copper offered the advantage of easy shaping—including molding. The next step up was bronze, a mixture of copper and tin, which is much harder and was a vast improvement for cutting tools. The discovery of metallurgy moved human beings out of the Stone Age and ushered in the Age of Metals.
The First Pocketknife: 600–500 BCE
The first folding pocketknife dates to the earlier part of this "age of metals." A folder with a bone handle was found in what is today Austria and pre-Roman era knives have been found in Spain. In later years, Roman troops were also known to carry folding knives. Even later, around 800 BCE, the Vikings seem to have been big fans of folding knives, too, and many examples of Viking-era folders have come to light.
Roman pocketknife and modern recreation; by Jeroen Zuiderwijk, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Age of Iron: approx. 1200–600 BCE
Humans had been using meteoric iron long before this date. The earliest iron artifacts found so far date to approximately 3200 BCE. These metal beads were found in Egypt and made from hammered meteoric iron. One of the knives found in King Tut’s tomb was made of meteoric iron as well. Archeologists have found evidence of iron smelting from about 1200 BCE. Yet it wasn’t until much later, when the techniques of iron smelting were well developed, that iron became the primary metal for tool making—including knives.
The Penknife: 1660 CE
The slipjoint knife, with a spring mechanism that kept the blade opened, became so popular with writers that they became known as penknives since they were used to cut quills into thin points that were then dipped in ink and used to write. Slipjoint knives are still made today.
Steel & ivory penknife, circa 1848, by Joseph Rodgers & Sons, public domain (CC0) via Wikimedia Commons
SpeedSafe® Assisted Opening: 1998 CE
Kershaw brings SpeedSafe assisted opening to market with the Random Task knife, model 1510—and assisted opening knives explode in popularity. Today, almost every knife manufacturer has their own version of this technology that enables the user to open a pocketknife quickly, easily, and one-handed.
We're excited about the amazing possibilities that the future holds as innovative technologies and advanced materials are being put to use in the service of one of our most venerable—and most valuable—technologies.