Albert Dremel developed the now famous rotary tool and started the company in 1932 to make blade sharpeners. It would be 1935 before the company produced the Moto-Tool which is mostly recognizable as an ancestor of the modern Dremel.
Dremel achieved such dominance that today the name is synonymous with rotary tools in the same way Xerox means photocopy and Crock-Pot is any slow cooker. Sure, there are knock offs you can get from the usual cheap tool outlets, but generally, people reach for a Dremel even when it isn’t really one. Today that tool might really be a Black and Decker or a Dewalt or even a cheap brand like Wen or Chicago Electric. But in the first half of the 20th century, you might have reached for a Handee.
The Handee was a product of the Chicago Wheel and Manufacturing Company who, in 1937, billed it as “a whole shop full of tools in one,” as you can see in this ad. While $10.75 might sound like a price for a Harbor Freight cheapie tool, adjusted for inflation that’s around $200 in 2020 money. At least for that price you got three free accessories out of the over 200 available.
I didn’t remember the Handee and I wanted to see if I could figure out what happened to it and the company who made it. After all, with the Internet at your disposal, how hard could it be? Turns out, I did learn a lot, but in the end, tracing down a company like this from the old days isn’t always as easy as you might think.
The tool seems to have a long history and I’d later learn they claimed to make them since 1933. The 13,000 RPM of the 1937 model is pretty respectable. (A modern Dremel ranges from 3,000 to 37,000 RPM.) By 1952, the tool was up to 25,000 RPM and came with 51 accessories for $27.50 (about $270 today).
They show up some on sites like eBay, so it would appear they were pretty common in their day. Also, the prices indicate there is an ample supply or — perhaps — not much demand.
Tracking down the origins of a company like this can be tricky. Volume 76 of “Iron and Steel” reports:
The Chicago Wheel & Manufacturing Company…manufacturers of corundum and emery carborundum wheels, etc. advise us that the business of the year 1899 surpassed that of any year since they started business. Mr. Miller recently bought out the interst of Mr. Snider, who had long been associated with him.
So you can surmise that the company had been around since 1898 or probably earlier, depending on their penchant for hyperbole.
However, that little bit gave me something to look up in the “The Book of Chicagoans” from 1911. The Mr. Miller in question was Henry Edward Miller. He became a manager of the Chicago Corundum Wheel Company in 1888. In 1895 he and four partners bought the business and changed the name.
Where Are They Now?
The last reference I can find to the Chicago Wheel and Manufacturing Company is in an article in a 1967 Popular Mechanics. The last ad I can find was in a 1966 edition of the same. The Handee — “the ideal gift” — cost $26 and went up to 28,000 RPM. That ad claimed the tool had been made since 1933. It makes you wonder if Dremel, founded in 1932, had seen their tool or vice versa since they were starting at about the same time.
When you look through old magazines, you have to wonder what happened to all those companies, especially one like this that seemed to be a pretty big concern. You like to think everything is on the Internet, but in this case, there’s very little trail left of this company. Sure, we can point at a few addresses they kept over the years, and trace their ads in a few magazines, but that’s about it.
Did the company get sold? Go out of business? Maybe a Hackaday reader knows the whole story. Or, if you had a Handee, tell us about it in the comments. Meanwhile, if you want to upgrade your cheap Dremel knock off, go ahead. Or build your own, but beware: getting some motors over 12,000 RPM is going to take more than the provided 7.4V.
If this piqued your interest in old school tools, one of the pages that you’ll want to spend some time on is http://www.flamingsteel.com/my-vintage-tool-collection.php. This is where the main image for this article comes from, and is packed with vintage tools going way back.