Sometimes, having the right tool gives you a leg up on a particular job. But with calipers like the ones shown at left, craftsmen of years gone by could have a leg up on every job.
Dancing-master calipers, as they were called, originally appeared in the late 1700s. Who first made the legs of a caliper anatomically correct (or nearly so, anyhow) isn't known. But, doing so certainly gave new meaning to the act of stepping off a measurement.
We may never know why machinists began making these unique calipers either, but tool collector John Gillis of Yucaipa, California, has some ideas. "Maybe machinists were just trying to express their artistic side," he suggests. "During the Victorian period [1837-1901], many woodworking machines and tools were elaborate in design--almost works of art. The [dancing-master] calipers of that period tend to be voluptuous," he says.
Yet many of these calipers predate the Victorian era and its emphasis on the beauty of tools and machines. That makes John suspect that the craftsmen's motives may have been slightly raffish, that the calipers were an early-days equivalent of later pin-up posters and calendars
You probably won't find any two calipers alike; they were all handmade. "Some are masterpieces of technical workmanship, with elaborate hinges," John says, "while others are masterpieces of art, with lovely forms." The best of the calipers combine technical and artistic merit. "They are as varied as the machinists who made them," John says.
Nobody knows how many dancing-master calipers machinists turned out before the practice died out in the 1940s. Flea markets and tool auctions are the best places to find them today. You'll run across many selling for $30-$50. But, the price can soar for a great pair of legs.
Photograph: Hetherington Photography Written by: Larry Johnston Tools from the collection of John Gillis, Yucaipa, Calif.