Temple Toggle Harpoon (19th c.)


This harpoon in the Southampton History Museum's collection is in the style of a Temple Toggle, a technique that was invented by the African American blacksmith and abolitionist Lewis Temple.


The design involves the pivoting of an iron head at the tip of the harpoon, allowing the iron to swivel and lock in place once it pierces the whale. Ordinarily a matchstick would be threaded through the hole that locks the spear in place, breaking once it pierces the whale. With the assistance of the secondary barb also piercing through, this ensures the spear would not fall out, thus minimizing the possibility of losing the whale. Maritime historian Clifford Ashley praised the Temple Toggle in 1926, stating "it is safe to say that the 'Temple Toggle' was the most important single invention in the whole history of whaling."


Born a slave in Richmond, Virginia around 1800 (exact date is unknown as much of his history is sadly lost), he moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1829. Seven years later, he was running a blacksmith shop on a wharf where he crafted spikes, harpoons, cargo hooks and other iron ship fittings and whaling implements. In 1848, his refinement of the harpoon - the Temple Toggle itself - was seen as a critical invention in the whaling instrument. His innovation was one of the few at the time that succeeded, based on the functions of previous Inuit and Indigenous tools. Temple never applied for a patent for his harpoon, resulting in many people copying his design and profiting off of it themselves - even after many overlooked or refused to accept the harpoon design previously. While not receiving the full credit he truly deserved for his innovation, the whaling industry was nevertheless improved drastically as a result of his successful technique.

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