INCH 101: Some Memories, Estimates, Guesses, Regarding Thomas Inch, Part 4.

Inch 101 - A series of articles that will relay to you about the life of Thomas Inch and his famed Inch Dumbbell. Part 4 talks about four different dumbbells, there weight, and who could or couldn’t lift them.

First a reference frame: Because Inch was born Dec 27, 1881, he turned age one on Dec 27, 1882. But for only five days of 1882, so it is more communicative (if no specific date is offered by history) to refer to 1882 as when he was (mostly) age one.

So when Inch moved to London at age 21, then he moved there either the final five days of 1902, or more probably, he moved there in 1903, which is when I place him as moving from Scarborough to London.

Here is a list of the four dumbbells which appeared to be identical in size and shape but varied by more than 129% in weight: Inch referred to the 75 lb bell as weighing 'less than 80 lbs', then pins the weight down to 75 lbs. I have been unable to determine the date the 75 was made other than to know that it was before March 1907, because it was on hand when Maurice Deriaz visited Inch to try his hand at lifting the 172.

  • 1897: acquires the 140 pound bell
  • 1902/1903: manages to deadlift the 140 with one hand
  • 1904: acquires the 153 pound bell
  • 1906: acquires the 172 pound bell
  • Pre 1907: acquires the 75 pound bell

Oddly, there is a 'new' dumbbell mentioned circa 1930, and I can find no more details about it beyond that it was mentioned. Also there has been mention of a 130 lb bell, but I have found no reference to it. This new bell was puzzlingly referred to as a barbell.


Click To Enlarge.
Thomas Inch.

Inch recounts in Health & Strength magazine in the Jan 21, 1922 issue about Deriaz:

    "One day I received a letter from his manager asking if Deriaz could try the thick- handled dumb-bell, with a view to winning my L100. I agreed at once.

    Deriaz had heard of it, and he could not see what would prevent his lifting it, especially WHEN I QUITE OPENLY DECLARED THE WEIGHT OF THE BELL" [emphasis mine].

This is the only time I have found when Inch acknowledged that the weight, 172, was revealed to anyone. Are we expected to believe that Deriaz did not inform fellow lifters of the bell's weight?

Deriaz arrived from Paris and Inch tells two versions of the story.

First Version:

    Inch found Deriaz likeable and extremely muscular in the thighs, upper arms and neck, but, "He could not stir the dumb-bell, and after many futile efforts asked that I should show him how." Now, please notice what Inch showed Deriaz: "I picked up the bell and actually carried it round the garden, a distance of perhaps 150 feet!" No overhead. A farmer's walk.

Second Version From Strength & Health May 1939:

    Inch refers here to the one bell at 80 pounds but we learn elsewhere it weighed 75:

      "I had a practice bell a little lighter [yes 97 lbs lighter] for my left hand and picked up BOTH bells carrying them around a large garden one in each hand; ever after Maurice always gave me a very good word for grip strength."

    Allow me to guess something here. We know the bells looked identical, with the 75 being hollowed out, so Deriaz shows up at Inch's house, sees two identical dumbbells. If he had grabbed the 75, Inch would have said, "That's my left hand practice bell, the other bell is the Challenge bell."

    But, what if Deriaz grabbed the 172 first, and assumed the identical bells were of the same weight? Then after he failed and watched Inch pick up both bells to walk the garden perimeter, would not Deriaz have assumed that he was witnessing a farmer's walk with 354 lbs? Again, no overhead lift.

Both these versions refer to March 1907, the same month Inch signed papers to contest against W.P. Caswell for April 20, 1907, which as previously mentioned was the debut to a London audience for the 172. Inch no doubt felt confident after Deriaz failed to move the bell. So we know the 75 also existed at that time.


Hello London I Challenge You

In the May 10, 1930 issue of H&S (23 years after the match) the story is told of that inaugural challenge following the Inch/Caswell match.

    "At the end of the match I introduced for the first time to a London audience the Inch challenge dumbbell." He continues, "The bell did not look very heavy or difficult to lift, and when the audience, mainly composed of strong men (the venue for the match was the German Gymnasium) learned that L100 would be given to the first man to raise the bell overhead, there was a rush to the stage."

The German Gymnasium Match:
At the German Gym in London on April 20, 1907 Thomas Inch lifted against William Penton Caswell. Inch would win with total poundage of 1,211.5 lbs to Caswell's 829 lbs.

Inch requires that the bell be lifted overhead to gain the L100, yet we have no evidence that Inch himself had ever overheaded it.

Then he leaves the bell for others to struggle against, and goes to his dressing room, where word reaches him that the audience is clamoring for him to lift it to show that it can be done. "...I went up to the bell and raised it with ease." Overhead, two hand clean, deadlift?

He writes in such a way that closure demands the reader assume he lifted it as the audience had been required to. Did he, with ease? Why then in the match with Caswell was Inch able to hoist in the one hand clean only 203.5 lbs on a regular, much easier, one inch diameter bar?

There are literally dozens of men who can one hand clean 203.5 lbs these days but do not have a prayer against the 172 thick handled bell.

To confuse the issue Inch reveals, "The best attempt was made by a tall man who gave me his name and received a prize." How does one judge the best effort unless the bell left the floor? Yet after this Inch always insisted that no one had ever been able to lift the bell off the floor, and that remained his story forever after, except for the other occasion mentioned in a previous Iron History where two men did not get it very far off the floor, which is to say, of course, that it left the floor.

These two men were also removed from the story later. In SUPERMAN May 1941 he recalls "During a period of over forty years [(so pre 1901?)] it has never once been lifted an inch from off the ground, except my myself..."


Tricks Of The Trade?

In S&H May 1939 Inch tries to explain why the bell is so difficult to lift:

    "I can state right away that it is a combination of weight and a thick handle which, acting together present an almost insurmountable difficulty to the lifters, and many thousands have made the attempt."

In some doublespeak he continues,

    "...and I developed 'will power' and the ability to put forth a terrific effort just for the moment, to an unusual degree."

How then could he walk 150 feet around a garden with the 172, or stand addressing an audience while holding the bell in his hand, if the required strength level was so extreme that he could summon the will power only for a moment?

And where was the will power in 1931 when the Pathe Film Company shot footage of him lifting the bell? Again in S&H May 1939 he refers to the 1931 film, but says that the film 'is about to be released'- eight years after being made?

In the film Inch is shown, he says, "...lifting the dumbbell and bringing up another [dumbbell] to make a two dumbbells anyhow of 276 lbs." So if the 172 was employed, the other bell would have to weigh 104, and therefore could not have been one of his other thick-handled challenge bells.

In SUPERMAN May 1941 he remembers:

    "Only a few years back, when well over fifty years of age, I went into training and lifted it for the Pathe Frere Film Company. I made a supreme effort, got it up after warning that operator that he must make no mistakes as I would never lift it a second time, then put it down with a bang.

    Judge my consternation when I heard him say, 'Sorry, Mr. Inch, I was terribly interested, I forgot to turn the handle.' I used some language, and it took me several hours before I could get it up again, in fact, I would never have done so if it had not been for Wally May's help with massage, at which he is a past master."

IRON HISTORY IN APRIL
Iron History
Apr 5, 1940 Nineteen year old John Davis bent pressed the 209 lb Rolandow solid dumbbell.


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Inch turned 50 in 1931, and by that time had lost his ability to summon instant strength. Also, notice that he had to go into training to be able to lift the bell, so how long a period had he been out of shape and unable to lift it? Yet some insist on believing that Inch was able to lift it eighteen years later at age 68 (circa 1949).

Perhaps he had forgotten his endorsement for Bovril in 1929 in which he stated that after becoming tired in trying for a successful lift he drank some hot Bovril and "...I felt a new lease of energy and achieved the record at the very first attempt."


Dumbbell Competition With The 140

In H&S March 2, 1929 Inch wrote,

    "I am out for a title before I grow too old and would like to hear from heavy-weight lifters on the matter, also from your numerous readers. I want to make it definitely clear that I claim to life (sic) more One Hand Anyhow, Two Hands Anyhow, Two Dumb bells Anyhow, than any other British heavy-weight, and on this I base my claim to a title."

Apparently, around 1929 Inch also began holding competitions with his competition bell, not his challenge bell. The competition bell weighed 140 and contestants were required to clean the bell (two hands were permitted) and then repetition jerk it as many reps as they could using only one hand.

Not surprisingly, several men were able to manage this imposing requirement. I miss some issues of H&S, and hopefully any of you who may own them can correct or amend the following which stands correct so far as I know from the sources I have examined.

In H&S October 8, 1932 Inch outlines plans for his tour involving a challenge with dumbbells (plural).

By 1933 Inch was holding a 'South vs. North' competition regarding the 140, but there is a puzzling statement "Mr. Inch gave an excellent lecture, and also ran a competition on his new mystery barbell." New? Barbell?

This is one of two references I have seen about a barbell challenge, and frankly, it must have been a mis-statement, because references following this all revert to dumbbell. SUPERMAN Nov 1933 was announced as the M.C. at an upcoming event and it was remarked that he may "...possibly run his barbell competition." It is un-nerving that writers for H&S and SUPERMAN would confuse a dumbbell with a barbell, but I fear that's what happened.

H&S June 3, 1933 regarding April 27, 1933,

    "Two special gold medals were won by Mr. Chowles of the Pembroke Club, and Mr. Spacey, of the Greenwich Club, for special feats with the dumb-bell in an endeavor to follow Mr. Inch's example of lifting the bell all the way single-handed OFF THE BELT" [emphasis mine].

This is in regard to a continental lifting belt which was used for a rest stop and repositioning during a lift. The larger the buckle, and this buckle must have been large to accommodate the 140 for a stopping place, the more dangerous the buckle could be as Inch discovered on another occasion during a barbell continental attempt when he inaccurately gauged where the bar was and brought it up under the bottom half of the buckle forcing the top half of the buckle to pivot into his heart area.

This is why some lifters would place a thick cloth beneath the buckle- to lessen the 'sharp' impact which of course would work in reverse if you successfully continued to the top of the buckle thus forcing the bottom of the buckle to pivot into your lower abdomen.

So were two hands allowed to the buckle, from where one hand alone was required to bring the bell to the shoulder? This does not seem to be the case in some of these 140 competitions, but it does seem to be the situation in others. I simply don't have enough source material to make a call.

But Inch "wishes to impress upon everyone interested that it is not the famous Inch Challenge Dumb-bell (retired two years ago). It is a competition bell which can be lifted as Messes. Newman, Chowles, and Spacey have proved." This was a point that Inch again made not too much later in H&S Oct 21, 1933.

Apparently the bells were so identical in appearance that onlookers and competitors at first assumed it was the Challenge bell. By March 31, 1934 H&S reported that W. Newman ...has lifted the Thomas Inch Dumbbell-(single handed jerk from the shoulders) 7 times in succession. Not the TI Challenge bell but weighed about 140. On Mar 17, 1934 Fairbrother lifted it 6 reps.

The condition was that the competitor had to lift the bell in the same method as used by Inch, and because two hands to the shoulder were allowed, what can we conclude but that is how Inch overheaded the 140?

So at this point we are aware that two dumbbells existed, and that makes Willoughby's mention in SUPER ATHLETES bewildering regarding a 1956 incident at Aberdeen,

    "...it developed that there was a second Inch dumbbell. Somewhat smaller than the 'number one' [i.e. the 172], and weighing 153 pounds. It also had a 2-1/2-inch handle. This dumbbell is said to be (or to have been, in 1956) owned by a Welsh amateur lifter named Tom Fenton, who was formerly a pupil of Inch's."

So, wait! This is now the third, not second dumbbell, and how is it that those participating at this event were not aware of the events and competitions in the early 1930s? Baffling.

Inch Dumbbell
Click Image To Enlarge.
The Original Thomas Inch Dumbbell.

It was this 153 that John Gallagher and Jacobus Jacobs one hand deadlifted in 1957. On a separate occasion Hubert Thomas also managed that lift.

Tom Fairbrother died in 1973; he was an Inch pupil often featured at Inch's lectures and John Valentine, a friend of Fairbrother's who once attempted to lift one of the Inch bells says that Fairbrother "...was never very gossipy on the subject." It turns out that Valentine was trying to lift the 172 because he traced it to David Prowse.

So, there were four Inch dumbbells, which either experienced lifters did not see lined up together, or saw a different one on different occasions, and because of their similar sizes, thought it was the same bell. I suspect Inch never brought the 75 out very often because certainly it would have been conquered by many, and would have exposed the fact that it existed.

If a lifters fails to move the 140 off the floor, then certainly it could weigh 240 and he wouldn't know the difference (except of course for size in this case).