Tools: Extending Our Reach

A man standing in front of six large screens displaying a single image of the firey sun. The man reaches out to touch the image.

About Tools: Extending Our Reach

On view from  December 12, 2014 to May 25, 2015

Why do tools come into being? And why do they look the way they do?

We all use tools—to work and measure and communicate, to observe and make and survive. Tools are extensions of ourselves, designed to help us overcome the limitations of our bodies.

Often, we think of tools as complex creations involving technology or engineering, but some are actually simple things we use every day. Some save us time and help make our lives easier, while others have helped us achieve amazing feats; some inventions forever change the way we do certain things, and many more have remained nearly the same for centuries.

The classic teardrop-shaped handaxe, for example, has persisted for more than 1.5 million years. While some tools are created for a single use, others, like the axe, are multipurpose from the beginning. Today’s digital counterpart, the iPhone, with its numerous functions, continues to expand its capabilities without physically changing size.

Selected from Cooper Hewitt and nine other Smithsonian collections, the 175 objects in Tools span diverse cultures, places, and time periods. The 1.85 million years of tool use and design represented in the exhibition provide an opportunity to consider tools as classic examples of design, and reveal the fundamental role they play in shaping our lives.

Some of the objects on view include:

• An artificial heart, a Braille typewriter, and a WWII escape map
• Eskimo snow goggles carved from fossil ivory
• A hand chopper made from volcanic rock
• A live feed of the Sun transmitted by an orbiting satellite
• A 3D printer that can operate in zero gravity

Also featured is the large-scale installation, Controller of the Universe (2007), by artist Damián Ortega is a frozen “explosion” of hundreds of hand tools suspended in the gallery.


Text says TOOLS above a photo of a single clothespin

272-page hardcover, available for pre-order here. Published by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. List price $29.95.


Explore all the objects in the exhibition through our online collection interface.


Tools: Extending Our Reach is made possible by major support from

Generous support is also provided by Newell Rubbermaid, Dorit and Avi Reichental, and Esme Usdan.

Additional funding is provided by the August Heckscher Exhibition Fund, Facebook, the Ehrenkranz Fund, and Smithsonian Institution funds from the Grand Challenges Consortia.