Professor Daniel Sichel from Emory Riddle University has published an interesting paper on nails. He found that before the Industrial Revolution, it took about a minute for a skilled blacksmith or nailsmith to produce one hand-forged nail. Today, a worker can produce 3,500 nails per minute. Nail productivity has increased by 349,900 percent, in the last 250 years. This would put the compound growth rate at around 3.31 percent a year.
In 1902 Sears Roebuck sold hammers for 53 cents. This sounds like a good deal until you realize that blue-collar wages were 15 cents an hour. A hammer cost 3.53 hours of work. Today Home Depot sells a basic hammer for around $6.50 and a blue-collar worker earns around $32.54 in hourly compensation (wages and benefits). This would indicate a hammer time price of around 12 minutes. You get 17.65 hammers today for the time price of one in 1902. If there had been no innovation in hammers and wages since 1902, a basic hammer would cost 17.65 times more, or around $114 today.
The “installed” price of a nail has also dropped significantly. Nail guns became widely available in the early 1980s. A worker with a hammer can install six nails per minute versus 20 per minute with a nail gun. And he’s not nearly as tired and sore at the end of the day.
Professor Sichel estimates the total cost to install a nail with a hammer is around 7.7 cents versus 3.6 cents using a nail gun. This 53 percent savings means that installed nails have effectively become 113 percent more abundant.