The First Tesla: A Tool That Shaped History

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Betina Museum of Wooden Shipbuilding / Facebook

Let’s play a quick association game: I say ‘Tesla’, you think of… the legendary inventor? The sleek electric vehicle?

While any of the two make for logical choices to come to mind, there’s a third tesla which precedes them both, one that is thousands of years older than Nikola Tesla and the coveted car.

The tesla in question is actually a tool; to be more precise, a cutting tool with a sharp edge that resembles an axe. Called adze in English, this piece of equipment was first invented in the stone age; it’s composed of a handle and a cutting edge set at right angles to the shaft. The oldest versions of the adze featured a wooden handle and a blade made of stone which was fastened to the handle by tying; later on, the handle was fitted into a socket of a metal blade.


Ancient adzes

Adzes were used all over the world: by the ancient Egyptians, the prehistoric Maori, the native peoples in the American Northwest. Centuries later, the tool retained its rudimentary form and continues to be used in specialised crafts such as carpentry or shipbuilding.

The Croatian language has two common terms for the adze: the tool is called bradva in the Croatian standard, but its equivalent tesla kind of has a more appealing ring to it. Tesla is known as a fundamental tool in traditional shipbuilding, where it’s used to carve and smooth wood at every stage of the process from shaping the frames to smoothing the edges. Here’s a tesla originating from Trogir which used to belong to a kalafat (shipbuilder) named Franko Bilić, who used it back in the Austro-Hungarian times:


Photo credit: Calafatus

The Betina Museum of Wooden Shipbuilding on Murter island also paid a tribute to this iconic tool with a quote from kalafat Šime Jušić:

“Tesla is the main tool, the command. (…) To this day, no other machine has yet been invented that could replace its complex role. Knowing how to put a tesla to good use is what makes a good shipbuilder.”


Come to think of it, it’s somehow suitable that all teslas we know about, uppercase or lowercase, have something to do with invention and technological development. From a simple tool crafted by our prehistoric ancestors to the groundbreaking innovations closer to the present day, one thing has proved certain over and over again: if it’s named tesla, something good will come of it.


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