The origin is debated, but a chainsaw-like tool was made around 1830 by the German orthopaedist Bernhard Heine. This instrument, the osteotome, had links of a chain carrying small cutting teeth with the edges set at an angle; the chain was moved around a guiding blade by turning the handle of a sprocket wheel. As the name implies, this was used to cut bone. The prototype of the chain saw familiar today in the timber industry was pioneered in the late 18th century by two Scottish doctors, John Aitken and James Jeffray, for symphysiotomy and excision of diseased bone respectively. The chain hand saw, a fine serrated link chain which cut on the concave side, was invented around 1783-1785. It was illustrated in Aitken's Principles of Midwifery or Puerperal Medicine (1785) and used by him in his dissecting room. Jeffray claimed to have conceived the idea of the chain saw independently about that time but it was 1790 before he was able to have it produced. In 1806, Jeffray published Cases of the Excision of Carious Joints by H. Park and P. F. Moreau with Observations by James Jeffray M.D. In this communication he translated Moreau's paper of 1803. Park and Moreau described successful excision of diseased joints, particularly the knee and elbow. Jeffray explained that the chain saw would allow a smaller wound and protect the adjacent neurovascular bundle. While a heroic concept, symphysiotomy had too many complications for most obstetricians but Jeffray's ideas became accepted, especially after the development of anaesthetics. Mechanised versions of the chain saw were developed but in the later 19th Century, it was superseded in surgery by the Gigli twisted wire saw. For much of the 19th century, however, the chain saw was a useful surgical instrument.
The earliest patent for a practical "endless chain saw" (a saw comprising a chain of links carrying saw teeth and running in a guide frame) was granted to Samuel J. Bens of San Francisco on January 17, 1905. His intent being to fell giant redwoods. The first portable chainsaw was developed and patented in 1918 by Canadian millwright James Shand. After he allowed his rights to lapse in 1930 his invention was further developed by what became the German company Festo in 1933. The company now operates as Festool producing portable power tools. Other important contributors to the modern chainsaw are Joseph Buford Cox and Andreas Stihl; the latter patented and developed an electrical chainsaw for use on bucking sites in 1926 and a gasoline-powered chainsaw in 1929, and founded a company to mass-produce them. In 1927, Emil Lerp, the founder of Dolmar, developed the world's first gasoline-powered chainsaw and mass-produced them.
World War II interrupted the supply of German chain saws to North America, so new manufacturers sprang up including Industrial Engineering Ltd (IEL) in 1947, the forerunner of Pioneer Saws. Ltd and part of Outboard Marine Corporation, the oldest manufacturer of chainsaws in North America.
McCulloch in North America started to produce chainsaws in 1948. The early models were heavy, two-person devices with long bars. Often chainsaws were so heavy that they had wheels like dragsaws. Other outfits used driven lines from a wheeled power unit to drive the cutting bar.
After World War II, improvements in aluminum and engine design lightened chainsaws to the point where one person could carry them. In some areas the skidder (chainsaw) crews have been replaced by the feller buncher and harvester.