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The evolution of the spinning reel

By Staff | Jun 29, 2017

During the pre-war years, a reel was a very poorly handmade contrivance that often sounded like the proverbial coffee grinder. It was basically a “direct-drive” creation – that is, spool and handle were turned together at a one-to-one ratio.

It was dangerous to the fingers and knuckles, because whenever a scrappy fish grabbed a well-presented bait and headed for the horizon, the spool would turn at an incredible rate and the handle would become a blur. Any attempt to grab the whirling knob would mean terrible bruises, torn fingernails and several badly damaged fingers. This did not stop many careful and determined anglers from developing a newer and better-built reel, however.

The “adjustable drag mechanism” was invented by a Californian named William Boschen, and it did away with the dreaded spinning handle. After working on the drag-mechanism for several years, Boschen took his new invention to a well-known pair: machinist Julius Von Hofe of Brooklyn and craftsman Joe A.Coxe of Catalina. Together they created a revolutionary fishing reel that permitted the spool to turn against an adjustable three-plate, multiple-disc clutch system.

The system consisted of multiple washers, some fixed metal washers with slots that wouldn’t turn and some soft washers that would turn. This combination created the right amount of drag or resistance. Being that it was fully adjustable, you could also set the drag to the tension you wanted. In 1913, the idea was so original that it wasn’t accepted.

When Boschen landed a 335-pound broadbill with his new reel, however, manufacturers soon began to use his creation as a model. Later a company by the name of Hardy Brothers Company of England designed the “star drag turning knob,” which became a standard part in all conventional and trolling reels.

An Englishman named Holden Illingworth, another trailblazer, created the “fixed-spool reel” in 1920. Illingworth actually combined several ideas, one of which came from a Scotsman, Peter Mallock of Perth. In 1884, Mallock invented a fixed-spool reel that was a totally confusing apparatus.

Illingworth redesigned the innovative invention and made it a more functional fishing machine. The reel later got the popular name “spinning reel” because of the spinning turntable that wrapped the line onto the fixed or stationary spool.

Reels now boast graphite housings and rotors matched with anodized aluminum spools and in-the-spool drag systems with stainless steel main shafts and ball bearings, making them lightweight, yet extremely strong, durable and corrosion proof. These reels are a far cry from the brass spools and the crank-at-your-own-risk direct-drive reels that left white burns on the thumb.

The evolution of the reel has not yet reached its zenith, for the demand is still on for more sophisticated and finely tuned fishing reels.