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Hand-powered devices have been used for millennia. However, during the last quarter of the 19th century a radically improved generation of tools appeared.

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These tools took advantage of modern mass production machinery and processes (like interchangeable parts) and an increased availability in superior material (metal instead of wood).

One of the outcomes included an array of new drilling machines. These human-powered tools were not only a vast improvement over those that came before them, they also had many advantages in comparison to the power drills that we use today.

A 1922 breast drill (picture credit).



For most of human history, drilling a hole into whatever chosen material required an extensive amount of time and effort. The first crude drilling tool was the awl, a sharp stone, flint, copper or bone point that could be attached to a piece of wood. The awl was pressed against an object and then rotated by hand, much like a present-day screwdriver. An alternative primitive method was the "hand drill" or "shaft drill", where a stick was rotated between the palms. Abrasives such as sand could be used simultaneously to make this drilling method more effective. These were extremely labour-intensive tasks, especially when the material that had to be drilled was hardy, like stone.

In his study of ancient stone-working technology (see sources), Denys Stocks came to the conclusion that even with a bronze drill bit it took up to 5 hours to drill a tiny hole 1 centimetre deep in a hard stone like quartz. Drilling holes into hard stone was commonplace in ancient times, for example in construction work and the making of necklaces and bracelets, so it is not surprising that our forefathers were investigating more efficient drilling methods with fervour.

Strap drills, bow drills and pump drills

The first step toward mechanisation was the "strap drill" (also known as "cord drill" or "thong drill"), which offered an increased rotation speed of the drill bit. The tool consisted of a drill bit attached to a longer wooden shaft, which was rotated by wrapping a cord or leather strap once around it and holding the ends with one"s hands; by pulling in one direction and then the other, the shaft spun and drilled into the material. The top of the shaft rotated freely in a mouthpiece which was held between the user"s teeth to exert more downward pressure. The tool was also used to make fire, which is the reason why it is also known as a "fire drill".

The strap drill was widely used, but was eventually superseded by the "bow drill", which appeared at least 6,000 years ago in Egypt. Based on the cord drill, the difference was that the cord or strap, again wrapped once around the shaft, was tied to a bow. Holding the drill vertically and the bow horizontally, the user then moved the bow backward and forward - much like a cellist - to revolve the shaft (picture on the right, by Rudolf Hommel).

The bow drill possessed two advantages over the strap drill: the shaft could be rotated at a higher speed, and as only one hand was needed to handle the bow, downward pressure could be exerted with the other hand instead of the mouth. Smaller bow drills were also used for dental care. The tool could be made from a few pieces of wood, a piece of string and a drill bit. A later improvement to the bow drill was the pump drill, which appeared in Roman times (picture on the left, source). It is similarly operated, except it functions by means of a downward instead of sideward movement. Sandor Nagyszalancy explains how it works in his book "Tools Rare and Ingenious":

"Pump drills get their name from the way they"re used. Pumping the crossbar up and down causes a string to wind and unwind at the shaft, thus spinning a pointed bit that"s fastened to the end of the shaft back and forth. The thick, rounded section just above the bit serves as a small flywheel to keep the spinning motion going."

Once more, the pump drill offered superior rotating speeds and more downward pressure. All these ancient drills were used in conjunction with a sharp drill point or with the help of abrasives (especially when drilling through stone). Pump and bow drills (which could not work without ropes and knots) are among the most successful tools ever made. Bow drills were still used in the western world at the end of the 19th century by carpenters for drilling small or delicate holes, whilst small pump drills are still sold today as a tool for jewellers.

Bow and thong drills operated by several people

The Chinese were especially keen on the above drilling tools. They relied on bow, pump and thong drills up until the beginning of the twentieth century and never developed any of the drilling tools that will be discussed further below. Rudolf Hommel photographed some of the Chinese drilling devices in his book "China at work". Chinese shipbuilders employed a larger version of the thong drill which was operated by two to three people. It was used for drilling the preliminary holes for the iron spikes which they utilized in ship construction. Henry Chapman Mercer describes the tool in his 1929 book "Ancient Carpenters" Tools":

"To work the apparatus, the thong is twisted around the spindle, whereupon one man holds down the pivot handle, thereby pressing down the drill bit into the wood, while two other man, each grasping the thong by one of its terminal handles, or one man holding a thong-handle in each hand and pulling the thong to and fro, cause the drill to twirl back and forth, as with the common bow drill."

The thong drill. Picture from "China at work" by Rudolf Hommel.

According to some historians, the Egyptians also made use of large bow drills operated by several people to make large holes (and to hollow out spaces) in their pyramids. Bronze hollow tubes of about 11 centimetres in diameter in conjunction with abrasives would have been used as a drill bit ("tube drills" or "core drills"), after which the remaining core is then carefully removed. Even larger holes could have been made by performing several drilling operations right next to each other, in a circular form. The core drill allows for larger holes without sacrificing drilling speed, because much less material has to be reduced to powder.

Denys Stocks conducted real-life experiments to see if this method could work, and succeeded. The results indicate that two drillers were required to push and pull a large bow, while a third person balanced a stone drill-cap on top of the shaft to exert downward pressure. Stocks achieved a drilling speed of 2 centimetres per hour in granite stone, and thinks the ancient Egyptians could have reached speeds of 12 cm per hour.

Whether or not the ancient Egyptians applied this technique remains open to debate, though. Archaeological remains of these tools have never been found, and unlike smaller drilling operations (common bow drills, stone drills to hollow out granite vases) these large-scale operations were only vaguely alluded to in wall paintings.

Augers, gimlets and reamers

Another very important invention from Roman times was the T-shapedauger (and the much smaller gimlet). Basically a long drill bit with a pair of wooden handles for rotating it. The tool looks a like an oversized corkscrew (picture on the left, source). Augers were used to drill large and/or deep holes in wood, for which the bow or pump drill was not very useful. They were applied by shipbuilders, bridgebuilders, millwrights, wheelwrights and the like.

In the Middle Ages augers were sometimes equipped with a breastplate on top for more drilling pressure - the user could rest the entire weight of his body on the pad. However, operating them was a tedious task. The Roman writer Vitruvius noted that the difficulty of the boring increased exponentially with the diameter of the hole. Apart from drilling holes, an auger was also used for "reaming" - enlarging an already existing hole.

The drilling action of the auger is based on the principle of leverage: the longer the handle, the greater the potential of applied force.

Some augers and reamers were huge and had to be operated by several people. One example is the wheelwrights" reamer, which was used to core the hub of a wheel in order to receive a metal bearing.

This was again no easy task, because if the hole was not perfectly straight the wheel would hobble along on the axle. Augers and reamers were essential tools until the end of the 19th century. Eric Sloane describes (and illustrates, on the right) the use of the tool in his 1964 book "A Museum of Early American Tools


"Oddly enough, the experts have not decided just how these reamers were used. But I rigged up a wagon wheel on a wheelwright"s bench, then put a hooked reamer through the hub, which I had weighted with 75 pounds. With two men turning a very long detachable handle it worked nicely. With an ordinary reamer, a man exerts about half its weight downward; this can be bettered with a 75 pound weight plus the 25 pound weight of the tool itself."

Pipe and pump augers

Another spectacular example was the pipe auger (and pipe reamer). These tools were used to bore water pipes from tree trunks. This kind of wooden water pipes was quite common in towns and smaller cities from the 15th to the 17th century, notes Maurice Daumas in "Histoire générale des techniques, tome 2" (illustration below, Maurice Dumas).


Stephen Shepherd, author of the Full Chisel Blog, explains how the pipe auger is operated:

"This type of bit will follow the center of the tree (they selected good straight trunks of the appropriate diameter) so the hole will be centered. What is unusual about this arrangement is the very long shank and the interchangeable bits and reamers. Some pipe auger handles were segmented and lengths could be added as needed. The shanks were slightly longer than the logs being made into water pipes. Twenty feet <6 metres> is not an uncommon length."

"There is a permanent set-up to do the work. Saw bucks or stantions to hold the log and smaller ones to hold the shank of the bit in the proper location. After the pilot hole is bored, the bit is changed out to a reamer to enlarge the hole. In order to facilitate the reaming, a rope is run through the hole and fixed to the hook on the end of the reamer. Now the work gets easy for the fellow twisting the handle as he no longer needs to push the auger, the fellow on the other end pulls the rope (also one with weights), pulling the reamer through the pilot hole enlarging the opening, as the handle is twisted."

Illustration by Stephen Shepherd, Full Chisel Blog.

This took quite some time. In his 1751 "Encyclopédie", Diderot writes that one man could bore a 5 cm diameter hole through 11.6 metres of pipe per day in alder or elm, but only 1.95 metres per day in oak. A similar method was used for boring the barrels of muskets and cannons, and for making wooden water pumps to get water up from wells or chisels.

Continuous versus reciprocating drills

The arrival of the auger did not nullify the bow and pump drills. Each had their advantages and drawbacks because they work in totally different ways. Firstly, with a bow or pump drill, downward pressure is applied by one hand, while with an auger it is applied by two hands. Second, the auger turns slowly in one direction, while the pump and bow drill work by quick reciprocating revolutions in both directions. The auger pares the wood into shavings as it goes down; the pump or bow drill pulverizes the wood into sawdust. The result is that the auger is much better suited to drill large holes, but not useful to make holes in materials other than wood. On the other hand, pump and bow drills will only drill comparatively small holes (with the possible exception of the large Egyptian tools), but can be used for drilling holes in all kinds of materials that need to be pulverized instead of pared: stone, marble or metal, for example.

Medieval breakthrough: the hand brace

While augers remained essential tools for large diameter holes until the end of the 1800s, the Middle Ages brought an important drilling innovation when it came to somewhat smaller holes: the "hand brace" or "bitstock". It introduced - for the first time in history - a continuous drilling motion. Both bow drills and augers worked by means of intermittent rotations, and during the short pause in between turns the drill bit had the tendency to get stuck.

The U-shaped body of the brace solved this problem. The user turned the handle continuously while exerting downward pressure with the hand or the chest on the pad (some later braces, the cage-head braces, had a larger breastplate). Braces came in many different sizes, with lengths varying from 10 centimetres or less to tools almost half a metre long.

The earliest representation of the hand brace dates from 1425, when it appears on a painting by the Flemish artist Robert Campin. The oldest surviving brace was recovered from an English ship that sank in 1545. Hand braces have remained in use ever since, although they can be difficult to find today. From the 15th to the beginning of the 19th century, braces improved only moderately. Early wooden braces were made with bits permanently attached, while later models had crude mechanisms for interchangeable bits. The shape of the tool hardly changed, but there was an evolution in the materials used.


English hand braces. Source: Hans Brunner Tools.

Most medieval hand braces were made almost entirely out of wood (sometimes even a naturally curved limb of a tree) with some minor iron reinforcements, and - of course - an iron drill bit. Later models were heavily reinforced with metal plates. Some braces were very crude, while others may be considered works of art. The early 19th century "Ultimatum" braces made by William Marples, crafted from japanned ivory or exotic wood (ebony, rosewood) and decorated with engraved and polished brass sidings, were famous for their aesthetic appeal.

Modern hand powered drilling tools

The next revolution in hand powered drilling tools only occured at the end of the 19th century, with the arrival of much improved hand braces and a whole new class of drilling tools: geared drills and boring machines, which took over the heavy duties from augers. They were much more powerful and versatile than their predecessors, but unfortunately their success did not last long. Half a century later they were almost completely superseded by electric power drills. As a result, many people are not even aware of the existence of these remarkable tools.


A rare 1880 combination of hand brace and geared drill, source

In the overview of modern hand powered drilling tools that follows, I will focus almost exclusively on the products of one enterprise: the Millers Falls Company from New York. Although there were a few important competitors, notably Goodell Pratt and North Brothers, Millers Falls dominated the market in the US and their tools are generally regarded as the best. Moreover, since the US became the forerunner of early mass production techniques, these tools became an example for most European manufacturers too.

Cheap steel and interchangeable parts

The improvement of drilling devices was mainly the consequence of the arrival of cheap steel and the invention of interchangeable parts. Randy Roeder, author of a splendid website dedicated to Millers Falls Tools, summarizes the changes in two paragraphs, using the hand brace as an example:

"The braces being offered by American companies at this time were among the finest hand-powered boring devices ever mass produced. The braces of the 1930s would have been a dream come true for a woodworker a century earlier. In the early nineteenth century, most braces were made of wood and prone to breakage if too much torque was applied to them. The forged iron braces sometimes made by blacksmiths were better in this regard, but both types were plagued with mechanisms inadequate to hold a bit securely and incapable adjustment for variations in the size or shape of a shank."


1872 patent premium model lever-type ratchet, source.

"One hundred years later, a brace with an adjustable Barber chuck , mounted on a quality steel frame and fitted with a rotating sweep handle and ball bearing head was considered bottom of the line. Better models came equipped with a ratchet mechanism allowing the user to bore a hole without making a full rotation of the sweep. Some of the best braces were manufactured with all or part of the ratchet mechanism enclosed, or “boxed.” Premium models came equipped with chucks which allowed for bits with a variety of shanks to be used. Fit and finish, of course, played a role in determining the eventual cost of the tool. "

Hand and breast drills

Apart from the improvement of the centuries-old hand brace, a whole new range of drilling tools appeared - most notably, so-called geared drills. The earliest picture of a geared drill appears in 1816 and the first geared drill patent is from 1838. It is most likely that they originated in France, perhaps as late as the end of the 1700s. Geared drills finally offered metal workers an alternative to the 6,000 year old bow drill and the 2,000 year old pump drill. WK Fine Tools, a website dedicated to late 19th century drilling tools, explains:

"A geared drill transfers its power from a vertical hand cranked main gear to a horizontal pin gear spinning on a shaft connected to a bit holding device. Depending on the size ratio of main gear to pinion a greater number of revolutions could be achieved from one turn of the crank."

Geared drills (also named "eggbeater drills" - see why) were initially made for drilling in metal, for which higher rotation speeds are a necessity. However, they were also used for drilling into soft wood, in which case the mechanical advantage simply led to easier drilling. Like hand braces, geared drills worked by continuous motion, but they offered the additional benefit of making the drill turn faster than the rate at which the crank is turned. Many models also offered the possibility of changing the bit rotation speed. Geared drills came in two varieties: "hand drills" and "breast drills". Millers Falls Company started mass producing them in 1878 and remained market leader ever since. Randy Roeder explains the differences between the two types:

"Hand drills are generally fifteen inches or less in length, are best suited for drilling holes in wood and light metals, and are most effective when used by a worker whose body is positioned above a work piece. They work best when operated at high speed and are especially useful for accurately drilling small-sized holes without damaging delicate drill points."

"Breast drills typically exceed fifteen inches and are topped by a concave plate that provides a surface which the user can lean against when boring a hole. Sometimes referred to as "chest drills," "belly drills" or "knee drills," these tools were indispensable in the construction industry, in blacksmith shops, in factories and in shops where rail cars were fabricated. Ruggedly built, the drills are useful for boring holes in iron, steel and extremely tough wood. Designed with the expectation that a worker would be putting a fair amount of body weight into a task, the breast drills are especially effective when used in a standing position, alongside the work piece."


Breast mills, even though they were human powered, could be very powerful tools. An example is the Millers Falls No. 13 breast mill pictured above, which was introduced in the mid-1880s. It had a driver that was six inches (15 cm) in diameter, which provided for a gear ratio of 4.5 to 1. This means that the drill bit spun 4.5 times faster than the user"s hand. Later models had even higher gear ratios. The No. 666, which was introduced in 1937, had a mechanical advantage of more than 7 to 1.

The breastplate replacing the knob did more than merely allowing the user to push his chest into the drill, notes Stephen Shepherd:

"It also freed his hands to turn the crank and hold an auxiliary handle on the pivot and opposite the crown wheel. The length of the arm to the turning knob varies from a knob mounted to the rim of the wheel, to a bar that extends beyond the wheel adding to the mechanical advantage."

More than 200 different models

Hand braces and geared drills came in a surprisingly large variety. In 1915, the inventory of Millers Falls included 28 hand drills, 40 breast drills and 135 variations on the hand brace - especially the latter figure is remarkable considering the tool"s simplicity.


One example is the Whimble Brace (above), of which the catalogue description reads as follows: "Ship builders, bridge builders and others whose work requires an unusually powerful sweep will find this brace a strong, sturdy tool, capable of standing the rough use to which it is necessarily put". Or take the "Corner Brace" (below), which was "the only practical tool for boring in corners and close to walls, and is indispensable to carpenters, bellhangers and plumbers".


Stationary use

Both braces and hand and breast drills could be mounted in special frames. The result was a hand powered "drill press", "bench drill", "post drill" or "beam drill", which further improved the performance of the tools. An example is the mounted breast drill pictured on the left, which was presented in 1883 (called the "Universal Hand Drill Press"). The magazine "Carpentry and Building" devoted an article to it:


"A steel frame is provided, in which the No. 10 breast drill may be used quite advantageously. The drill is held true by the frame, and the work is held firmly in place by the clamp shown in the engraving. The lever-feed provided by this arrangement may be operated by hand, or a weight may be employed, as may be preferred. The advantage of an attachment of this kind for use in connection with a breast drill is obvious. Most of the work done by a tool of this character can be better performed with the drill mounted in the frame. When the breast-drill is used in the ordinary manner it very frequently requires heavy pressure, which is quite fatiguing to the workman. In the arrangement shown there is a leverage of five to one, which makes the feeding an easy matter. When work is required that cannot be done in the frame, the tool can be taken out in a very small space of time, and used in the ordinary way."

Many different frames were available, and the same principle could also be applied to the hand brace (see the patent illustration below). Angular and ratchet drilling machines could be attached to broken machines and swung around so as to drill at a variety of angles (above, right). Apart from the advantages listed above, this arrangement also gave the operator the advantage of keeping one hand free. A variant of such a stationary hand powered tool was the "wood boring machine" (image on the right, source).

This two-handed drill was the most powerful model the Millers Falls Company made, and was introduced in the 1860s. An adjustable model drilled at any angle, while the wooden base that holds the superstructure is a seat for the operator to sit on.

Stephen Shepherd used the machine and was impressed:

"The two hand cranks and gear mechanism makes this an aggressive drill, even with big twist bits. It easily bores big holes in timber. At the proper depth, the rack gear is moved to engage a gear and continuous turning of the hand crank pulls the bit out of the hole with the greatest of ease."

A completely different hand powered drilling machine (not manufactured by Miller Falls) was especially designed for piercing through tough rocks. The "Ingersoll Hand Power Drill" (image on the left) is pictured and described in the 1892 encyclopedia "Modern Mechanism":

"The spring is compressed by the lifting of the cross-head, and its recoil on release produces the blow, which is delivered dead on the stone without shock to the men. The spring ordinarily supplied for a drill to be worked by 2 men is compressed to 200 lbs, and produces with the momentum of the working rod and drill a blow of about 300 lbs."

Continued availability

The continued availability of some hand powered drilling tools is at least as remarkable as their diversity. For instance, the Millers Falls No.2 hand drill, one of the company"s most popular eggbeater drills, was introduced as early as 1878 and could still be found (largely unchanged) in their 1981 catalogue - over 100 years after its introduction (see the picture of a 1903 model on the right, source).The No.2 hand drill even survived the introduction of the so-called Buck Rogers hand drill (picture below), its more radically designed modern looking cousin with enclosed gears, which appeared in the late 1940s and was discontinued by 1960. The No.2 is the most spectacular example when it comes to availability, but most other conventional models remained available for many decades, too.

Nevertheless, the heydays of modern hand powered drilling tools were over fast, even before the 1920s began. While Millers Falls had 135 different models of hand braces in its 1915 catalogue, the number of braces in the catalogue had shrunk to 35 by 1938 and to 13 in 1949. Randy Roeder explains what happened:

"The growing preference for electric boring tools was making itself felt in the workplace, and it is plain that the market could no longer sustain a huge line of braces, many of them differing only slightly from another. Oddly, the company continued to market breast drills into the 1980s. Although the drills were already an anachronism, competitors were so few that it had the market pretty much to itself."

The 1981 Millers Falls catalogue (see the illustration on the right, the company was bought by Ingersoll-Rand by then) features only 3 braces, one hand drill and one breast drill. Today, new hand braces
and hand drills
can still be bought, but they are rare. Breast drills have disappeared altogether - not one company sells them anymore (update: they are still for sale, see comments).

Pinnacle of drilling machinery

The interesting thing is that the drilling tools that appeared in the late 19th century were not only a vast improvement over earlier tools; they also have many advantages over their present-day successors, the power drills. Of course, as most modern products, power drills offer the advantage of convenience: merely pushing a button will do the job. But that luxury comes at a steep price.

Obviously, modern power drills are dependent on fossil fuels to generate the electricity for them to use. Any interruption in the electricity supply will render a power drill utterly useless. The simple operation of drilling a hole would then be impossible, which is quite remarkable since less than 100 years ago no electricity was needed to perform the job almost as quickly as today.

Power drills are also dependent on fossil fuels for the manufacture of their materials (mostly plastics) and their electronic components, as well as for the mining of the resources to make these (rare earth metals included). Naturally, manually powered drills require energy for their manufacture, too. They are made almost entirely from iron and steel with nickel plating. But there is a crucial difference to consider here; even if we assume that the embodied energy of a hand drill is similar to that of a power drill, it has a much longer service life.

Maintenance and durability

Hand tools that were sold in the 1870s and saved from the junkyard by antiquarians or nostalgic craftsmen can still perform their tasks without any problem today, even when they were unused for decades - a bit of cleaning (using gasoline) was all that it needed. These tools were made to last. Furthermore, the continued availability of the same models for many decades guaranteed that spare parts remained available. A hand powered drill hardly requires any maintenance to be kept in good shape. Oiling the tool from time to time suffices. After years of intensive use, they might need new wooden handles, but that"s all. An electric drill requires much more attention, because it consists of much more parts - and more delicate parts, too.

The electric tool must be opened periodically for cleaning and oiling to keep it running smoothly. The brushes should be inspected and replaced from time to time. Wiring and circuits should be checked. In the case of a corded drill, the cord is prone to damage. The machine has to be kept away from dust, rain and high temperatures. Etcetera.

The possibility of something breaking down is much higher than in the case of a hand powered tool. Since it is mostly cheaper and easier to replace a high-tech product than to repair it, this means that power drills won"t last 100 years or more. They will have to be manufactured again and again.

Even if it is maintained good and used for a long time, a cordless power drill will regularly need new batteries, again raising energy and material consumption, as well as dependency on a delivery infrastructure that might not always be there. .

Silent, safe, flexible, forgiving

Even when disregarding energy and environmental issues, hand powered drills offer some real, practical advantages. They are rather silent, while power drills can produce up to 130 decibels of noise. Their independence from electricity and batteries also guarantees that you can use them anywhere you want for as long as you want, unhampered by cords that are always too short and batteries that never last long enough. Manually powered drills are also much safer than power drills, and because of their lower drilling speeds and more direct control, corrections are much easier to make while drilling a hole (especially handy for clumsy people like me).Of course, the lower rotation speed can also be seen as the (only) drawback of a hand powered drill. They can do all the jobs that we now use power tools for, but for large and/or deep holes in hard materials this will cost more time and some exercise - and that"s enough for us to laugh at them. Exactly the same issue was found with human powered cranes.

Low-tech or high-tech?

We always compare simpler solutions like hand powered drills to modern, unsustainable machinery, and never to the tools that came before them. Hand powered drilling tools are indeed low-tech if you compare them to power drills. However, they are definitely high-tech when you compare them to bow drills, augers and crude wooden hand braces. The hand drills that we now disregard are products of the industrial revolution, and they should not be taken for granted. Efficient hand powered drills require good steel, mass production factories, and oil to keep their gears in shape.

Water powered drilling mill. Source: Deutsche Fotothek.

One last thing. It is important to note that this article only discusses the history of hand powered drilling tools and machines. From the late Middle Ages onwards, large scale drilling and boring was also performed by animal power, water power and wind power, requiring no human effort at all. See for example the water powered drilling mill above, which was used for boring water pipes as an alternative to the pipe auger that was described earlier.

Large-scale drilling operations became more important at the end of the 19th century, which led to a whole new range of machines equipped with steam engines and electric motors. No attempts to improve the existing water and wind powered boring machines with interchangeable parts and better materials were made.

Kris De Decker (edited by Shameez Joubert)



The Human Power Plant project investigates the possibilities of human energy production in a modern society. It plans to convert a 22-floor building on the campus of Utrecht University into an entirely human powered student community. With a combination of low-tech solutions, lifestyle changes, and some exercise, it demonstrates that 750 students can live a fossil fuel free life on campus.


19th century drilling tools:

Ancient & medieval tools, general history:

Drilling and boring tools, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1995 edition

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