In ancient China, the trip hammer evolved out of the use of the pestle and mortar, which in turn gave rise to the treadle-operated tilt-hammer (Pinyin: dui; Wade-Giles: tui). The latter was a simple device employing a lever and fulcrum (operated by pressure applied by the weight of one's foot to one end), which featured a series of catches or lugs on the main revolving shaft as well. This device enabled the labor of pounding, often in the decorticating and polishing of grain, and avoided manual use of pounding with hand and arm. Although historians assert that its origins may span as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1050 BC–221 BC), the earliest texts to describe the device are the Ji Jiu Pian dictionary of 40 BC, Yang Xiong's text known as the Fangyan of 15 BC, as well as the Xin Lun written by Huan Tan about 20 AD (during the usurpation of Wang Mang). The latter book states that the legendary mythological king known as Fu Xi was the one responsible for the pestle and mortar (which evolved into the tilt-hammer and then trip hammer device). Although the author speaks of the mythological Fu Xi, a passage of his writing gives hint that the waterwheel and trip-hammer were in widespread use by the 1st century AD in China (for Chinese metallurgy with water-power, see Du Shi)(Wade-Giles spelling):
Fu Hsi invented the pestle and mortar, which is so useful, and later on it was cleverly improved in such a way that the whole weight of the body could be used for treading on the tilt-hammer (tui), thus increasing the efficiency ten times. Afterwards the power of animals—donkeys, mules, oxen, and horses—was applied by means of machinery, and water-power too used for pounding, so that the benefit was increased a hundredfold.
With his description, it is seen that the out-of-date Chinese term for pestle and mortar (dui, tui) would soon be replaced with the Chinese term for the water-powered trip-hammer (Pinyin: shui dui; Wade-Giles: shui tui). The Han Dynasty scholar and poet Ma Rong (79–166 AD) mentioned in one of his poems of hammers 'pounding in the water-echoing caves'. As described in the Hou Han Shu, in 129 AD the official Yu Xu gave a report to Emperor Shun of Han that trip hammers were being exported from Han China to the Western Qiang people by way of canals through the Qilian Mountains. In his Rou Xing Lun, the government official Kong Rong (153–208 AD) remarked that the invention of the trip hammer was an excellent example of a product created by intelligent men during his own age (comparing the relative achievements of the sages of old). During the 3rd century AD, the high government official and engineer Du Yu established the use of combined trip hammer batteries (lian zhi dui), which employed several shafts that were arranged to work off one large waterwheel. In Chinese texts of the 4th century, there are written accounts of men possessing and operating hundreds of trip hammer machines, such as the venerable mathematician Wang Rong (died 306 AD), Deng Yu (died 326 AD), and Shi Chong (died 300 AD), responsible for the operation of hundreds of trip hammers in over thirty governmental districts throughout China. There are numerous references to trip hammers during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) and Song Dynasty (960–1279), and there are Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) references that report the use of trip hammers in papermills of Fujian Province.
Although Chinese trip hammers in China were sometimes powered by the more efficient vertical-set waterwheel, the Chinese often employed the horizontal-set waterwheel in operating trip hammers, along with recumbent hammers. The recumbent hammer was found in Chinese illustrations by 1313 AD, with the publishing of Wang Zhen's Nong Shu book on ancient and contemporary (medieval) metallurgy in China. There were also illustrations of trip hammers in an encyclopedia of 1637, written by Song Yingxing (1587–1666).
Apart from agricultural processing, archaeological evidence also strongly suggests the existence of trip hammers in Roman metal working. In Ickham in Kent, a large metal hammer-head with mechanical deformations was excavated in an area where several Roman water-mills and metal waste dumps have also been traced.
The widest application of trip hammers, however, seems to have occurred in Roman mining, where ore from deep veins was first crushed into small pieces for further processing. Here, the regularity and spacing of large indentations on stone anvils indicate the use of cam-operated ore stamps, much like the devices of later medieval mining. Such mechanically deformed anvils have been found at numerous Roman silver and gold mining sites in Western Europe, including at Dolaucothi (Wales), and on the Iberian peninsula, where the datable examples are from the 1st and 2nd century AD. At Dolaucothi, these trip-hammers were hydraulic-driven and possibly also at other Roman mining sites, where the large scale use of the hushing and ground sluicing technique meant that large amounts of water were directly available for powering the machines.
Trip hammers were of three kinds. All require artificial power to lift them:
The choice of which kind should be used in a particular context may depend on the strain that its operation imposed on the helve. This was normally of wood until the 19th century. Surviving nosehelves and those in pictures appear to be of cast iron. This was replaced by James Nasmyth's steam-powered drop hammer (invented in 1839 and patented in 1842. However the forge had become less important following the improvements to the rolling mill that went along with the adoption of puddling from the end of the 18th century.