I recently watched a group of kids manufacturing bird houses. It was marvellous how quickly they were able to comprehend a hammer’s purpose and its limitations.
There were problems, of course. When a nail went awry, an adult typically had to intervene and assist in the use of the hammer’s claw.
For the kids, however, the most basic use of a hammer was pure satisfaction in itself. Some of them just pounded pointlessly on a picnic table, making noise and enjoying the solid moment of impact.
In a symbolic sense, the hammer is the simplest and most basic representation of our power as humans, even as it ties us to nature.
The Norse god, Thor, was revered for the power of his hammer Mjolnir. His hammer was regarded as the the strongest weapon of all in the Norse pantheon.
The Soviet Union combined the image of the hammer with a sickle to represent the strength of its ideology and state. In general, communist and socialist propaganda is resplendent with people brandishing hammers in a show of power and solidarity.
The folk song, If I Had a Hammer, ironically enacts the power of the tool to strike down forces that impede civil and human rights.
Hammers are often used symbolically in protest. When Japanese automakers began invading the US in the 80s, Detroit citizens held rallies in which they’d manually demolish Corollas and Civics with claw hammers.
To professionals, the hammer is a personal device. I’ve observed construction workers who have refused to share their hammer with even their closest friend. A contractor I hired once drove back an hour to my house when he realized he’d forgotten to bring his hammer home with him.
We often think of the hammer as a simple tool, but its effectiveness relies on the laws of physics. The hammer is a force amplifier. It converts mechanical effort into kinetic energy, providing massive power to even the lamest of swings.
What’s more, the hammer takes many forms and provides many services. The sledgehammer demolishes. The geologist’s hammer splits rock.
Then there’s the mallet, which is essentially a special hammer designed to moderate force and damage on some materials, such as meat, soft metal, fabric, and leather.
The mallet extends the hammer’s usefulness into new domains.
We play music with mallets on such instruments as timpanis and xylophones.
We play games with mallets. Think of croquet and polo.
We laugh at mallet gags. Watch almost any Looney Tunes cartoon for some good examples of mallet humour.
The hammer is a source of truth. It is an unambiguous tool that makes no false promises and presents no facade. It does what it does: provides an individual with the additional striking force needed to complete a specific task. It almost never fails.
Compare that to another tool: the modern computer.
In Robert Munsch’s book, Jonathan Cleaned Up, the all-powerful computer that runs the city of Toronto ends up being a mere shell secretly staffed by a little old man who lives inside.
In this tale of a misplaced subway station that is solved by the provision of blackberry jam, Munsch captures the spirit of society’s attitude towards modern tools. We are in awe of them. We very nearly worship them for, like pagans to their gods, we do not fully understand their power.
The question is: do we control the tool, or does it control us?
There is no doubt about who controls the hammer. And, unlike with a computer, the power balance is reciprocal: both the hammer and its user depend on one another for optimal functionality.
The hammer is a timeless tool that tempers human power with the laws of nature. Through the hammer we are reminded of our place in the natural order of things.
And it helps us make really cool stuff, too. Like bird feeders.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 27, 2007.