Lewis Temple And His Impact on 19th Century Whaling

photo of the week for Saturday, 2008, July 26
Photographer: National Park Service

Our National Park System is rich in history, not just natural resources. One such example is the statute that recalls a man who had perhaps one of the most significant impacts any one individual could bring to bear on the whaling industry of the early 19th century.

At the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park on the Massachusetts coast stands a statute in honor of Lewis Temple, an inventor who lived from 1800-1854. His significance? He invented the "toggle iron."

Temple was born in Richmond, Virginia, but whether he was enslaved or free at birth is not known. What is known is that by June, 20, 1829, he had moved to New Bedford, for on that date and in that town he married Mary Clark of Baltimore.

Temple worked as a blacksmith at Coffin's Wharf at the foot of Walnut Street, where he stayed until the last year of his life. In 1834 he was elected vice president of New Bedford Union Society, the village's first antislavery society and one of the black auxiliaries to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, founded a year earlier.

In his Walnut Street shop in 1848 Temple invented what is now known as the "Temple toggle iron." Earlier "irons," or harpoons, once sunk into a whale's flesh, often tended to work themselves loose in the fury of the fight. But the Temple iron had a pivoting head so that the point would turn once the harpoon struck and embed itself more securely.

The device, which Temple never patented, improved the success of whaling immeasurably and must have inspired the New Bedford firm Delano and Pierce to build Temple a new shop at the foot of School Street in 1854.

Temple, however, never worked in the new shop. Indeed, it was never completed because of the accident that claimed his life in 1854. It was during the previous fall when Temple was seriously injured in a fall from a plank placed over an open sewer trench.

A monument to Temple, which, because no likeness of him exists, is based on a photograph of his son, Lewis Temple Jr., stands today in front of New Bedford Free Public Library on Pleasant Street in New Bedford. You can find Temple toggle harpoons in the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

On the Web: www.nps.gov/nebe