It is unknown just how long ago the first lobster was caught, but we do know that it has been going on for hundreds of years. Some reports indicate that Atlantic Canadian natives as far back as the 16th century would gather them up in low tide. It is believed that they were much more abundant in those days.
The business of lobster fishing has been booming since the 1800s. New Englanders began canning sea food in 1843 in Eastport Maine. A Boston company called Shedd & Knox constructed a lobster factory on Pictou Island in the 1870s. It wasn't long before everyone was hopping on the lobster boat.
Back in those days, fishermen would row out in sailboats and set their traps. Each boat would usually be manned by two men and handle an around 200 traps. Just like it's done today, they would set out very early in the morning, before dawn, and usually return just before noon. Initially the lobster business was made up of these small independent outfits of men who bought their own boats and traps. Eventually, when the big canneries started taking over, the lobster fisherman were more commonly employees or subcontractors of the canneries, who would rent equipment. Lobsters were bought by the canneries at a set unit price, as opposed to the price per lb system in effect today. It's estimated that two able-bodied fisherman could pull in four to five tons of lobster per season.
Back in those times, the fishing industry was not subject to all the rules and regulations that it is today. A man could go out and catch a hundred lobsters without ever measuring a single one. At least, until 1871, when the government introduced new regulations regarding the use of soft-shelled lobsters and berried females. They also imposed size restrictions, much to the chagrin of the fishermen. The following year, they restricted fishing in the months of July and August.
These were times when lobster factories were still a rarity, and it wasn't uncommon for most lobster fisherman to process their catch in their own homes. They would routinely bring home loads of lobster, and with their wives they would boil them, and then extract the meat, can it, and even solder the can closed. Each can would be packed with 1lb of meat, and arranged into cases of 48 cans. The meat would not keep for long under these conditions, and commonly would go bad if not sold promptly. Luckily, the sophistication of the industry improved rather quickly.
By the 20th century, canneries were springing up all over the coast. The initial boom eventually slowed down, and the smaller canneries went out of business, however the big ones remained in control of the industry.
Interestingly, at the turn of the 20th century, lobster was actually considered to be a "poor man's" food. Children of fishermen would routinely be teased for having lobster sandwiches packed into their lunches. The public opinion of lobster has done a 180 since, and today is considered a luxury food in most parts of the world.
Along with the improvements to the packaging methods, there have also been vast improvements over the years in the boats used by lobster fishermen, as well as to the traps themselves. Thanks to the advent of technology, most lobster boats today contain radar, GPS navigation, and color monitor depth sounders, which allow them to view what the floor of the ocean looks like beneath the boat. This is an invaluable tool, since the depth can be determined instantly and the proper ocean floor terrain can be targeted to places where lobsters commonly flourish.
A long time ago, when lobster fishing was a bit more crude, men used to catch lobster by spearing or gaffing them in shallow waters. They would creep out by torchlight in the wee hours in search of low tide dwellers. Although most lobster fishermen at the time were only fishing for food, and not commercially, there was still a market for them, and they would fetch a better price if they weren't too damaged by the spear. Developing a way to trap the lobsters was a very effective solution to this problem. The first traps were simple wire cages, but they were soon replaced by hoop nets. The hoop nets were constructed from discarded cart-wheels which then had netting stretched over them. These traps proved very effective in shallow waters, which were usually rich with canner (smaller) lobsters. Remember, in the old days, fishermen were paid for each lobster, as opposed to the total weight of their load.
Lobster traps today on the East coast are generally made of metal, or a combination of wood and metal. On the West coast, where the waters are fairly calmer, some traps are commonly made of plastic wire, with rebar tied to one side of the frame. All traps have the same basic concept, where they are baited in the main chamber, so that the lobsters funnel into the first chamber, and then funnel through to the main chamber to get the bait, where they will remain until the trap is pulled.