The Horse, Waterwheel, Steam Engine, Electricity, DC and AC Power, Power Transmission and Electric Motors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 26th, 2012

Technology 101

(Original published December 21st, 2011)

A Waterwheel, Shaft, Pulleys and Belts made Power Transmission Complex

The history of man is the story of man controlling and shaping our environment.  Prehistoric man did little to change his environment.  But he started the process.  By making tools for the first time.  Over time we made better tools.  Taking us into the Bronze Age.  Where we did greater things.  The Sumerians and the Egyptians led their civilization in mass farming.  Created some of the first food surpluses in history.  In time came the Iron Age.  Better tools.  And better plows.  Fewer people could do more.  Especially when we attached an iron plow to one horsepower.  Or better yet, when horses were teamed together to produce 2 horsepower.  3 horsepower.  Even 4 horsepower.  The more power man harnessed the more work he was able to do.

This was the key to controlling and shaping our environment.  Converting energy into power.  A horse’s physiology can produce energy.  By feeding, watering and resting a horse we can convert that energy into power.  And with that power we can do greater work than we can do with our own physiology.  Working with horse-power has been the standard for millennia.  Especially for motive power.  Moving things.  Like dragging a plow.  But man has harnessed other energy.  Such as moving water.  Using a waterwheel.  Go into an old working cider mill in the fall and you’ll see how man made power from water by turning a wheel and a series of belts and pulleys.  The waterwheel turned a main shaft that ran the length of the work area.  On the shaft were pulleys.  Around these pulleys were belts that could be engaged to transfer power to a work station.  Where it would turn another pulley attached to a shaft.  Depending on the nature of the work task the rotational motion of the main shaft could be increased or decreased with gears.  We could change it from rotational to reciprocating motion.  We could even change the axis of rotation with another type of gearing.

This was a great step forward in advancing civilization.  But the waterwheel, shaft, pulleys and belts made power transmission complex.  And somewhat limited by the energy available in the moving water.  A great step forward was the steam engine.  A large external combustion engine.  Where an external firebox heated water to steam.  And then that steam pushed a piston in a cylinder.  The energy in expanding steam was far greater than in moving water.  It produced far more power.  And could do far more work.  We could do so much work with the steam engine that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

Nikola Tesla created an Electrical Revolution using AC Power

The steam engine also gave us more freedom.  We could now build a factory anywhere we wanted to.  And did.  We could do something else with it, too.  We could put it on tracks.  And use it to pull heavy loads across the country.  The steam locomotive interconnected the factories to the raw materials they consumed.  And to the cities that bought their finished goods.  At a rate no amount of teamed horses could equal.  Yes, the iron horse ended man’s special relationship with the horse.  Even on the farm.  Where steam engines powered our first tractors.  Giving man the ability to do more work than ever.  And grow more food than ever.  Creating greater food surpluses than the Sumerians and Egyptians could ever grow.  No matter how much of their fertile river banks they cultivated.  Or how much land they irrigated.

Steam engines were incredibly powerful.  But they were big.  And very complex.  They were ideal for the farm and the factory.  The steam locomotive and the steamship.  But one thing they were not good at was transmitting power over distances.  A limitation the waterwheel shared.  To transmit power from a steam engine required a complicated series of belts and pulleys.  Or multiple steam engines.  A great advance in technology changed all that.  Something Benjamin Franklin experimented with.  Something Thomas Edison did, too.  Even gave us one of the greatest inventions of all time that used this new technology.  The light bulb.  Powered by, of course, electricity.

Electricity.  That thing we can’t see, touch or smell.  And it moves mysteriously through wires and does work.  Edison did much to advance this technology.  Created electrical generators.  And lit our cities with his electric light bulb.  Electrical power lines crisscrossed our early cities.  And there were a lot of them.  Far more than we see today.  Why?  Because Edison’s power was direct current.  DC.  Which had some serious drawbacks when it came to power transmission.  For one it didn’t travel very far before losing much of its power. So electrical loads couldn’t be far from a generator.  And you needed a generator for each voltage you used.  That adds up to a lot of generators.  Great if you’re in the business of selling electrical generators.  Which Edison was.  But it made DC power costly.  And complex.  Which explained that maze of power lines crisscrossing our cities.  A set of wires for each voltage.  Something you didn’t need with alternating current.  AC.  And a young engineer working for George Westinghouse was about to give Thomas Edison a run for his money.  By creating an electrical revolution using that AC power.  And that’s just what Nikola Tesla did.

Transformers Stepped-up Voltages for Power Transmission and Stepped-down Voltages for Electrical Motors

An alternating current went back and forth through a wire.  It did not have to return to the electrical generator after leaving it.  Unlike a direct current ultimately had to.  Think of a reciprocating engine.  Like on a steam locomotive.  This back and forth motion doesn’t do anything but go back and forth.  Not very useful on a train.  But when we convert it to rotational motion, why, that’s a whole other story.  Because rotational motion on a train is very useful.  Just as AC current in transmission lines turned out to be very useful.

There are two electrical formulas that explain a lot of these developments.  First, electrical power (P) is equal to the voltage (V) multiplied by the current (I).  Expressed mathematically, P = V x I.  Second, current (I) is equal to the voltage (V) divided by the electrical resistance (R).  Mathematically, I = V/R.  That’s the math.  Here it is in words.  The greater the voltage and current the greater the power.  And the more work you can do.  However, we transmit current on copper wires.  And copper is expensive.  So to increase current we need to lower the resistance of that expensive copper wire.  But there’s only one way to do that.  By using very thick and expensive wires.  See where we’re going here?  Increasing current is a costly way to increase power.  Because of all that copper.  It’s just not economical.  So what about increasing voltage instead?  Turns out that’s very economical.  Because you can transmit great power with small currents if you step up the voltage.  And Nikola Tesla’s AC power allowed just that.  By using transformers.  Which, unfortunately for Edison, don’t work with DC power.

This is why Nikola Tesla’s AC power put Thomas Edison’s DC power out of business.  By stepping up voltages a power plant could send power long distances.  And then that high voltage could be stepped down to a variety of voltages and connected to factories (and homes).  Electric power could do one more very important thing.  It could power new electric motors.  And convert this AC power into rotational motion.  These electric motors came in all different sizes and voltages to suit the task at hand.  So instead of a waterwheel or a steam engine driving a main shaft through a factory we simply connected factories to the electric grid.  Then they used step-down transformers within the factory where needed for the various work tasks.  Connecting to electric motors on a variety of machines.  Where a worker could turn them on or off with the flick of a switch.  Without endangering him or herself by engaging or disengaging belts from a main drive shaft.  Instead the worker could spend all of his or her time on the task at hand.  Increasing productivity like never before.

Free Market Capitalism gave us Electric Power, the Electric Motor and the Roaring Twenties

What electric power and the electric motor did was reduce the size and complexity of energy conversion to useable power.  Steam engines were massive, complex and dangerous.  Exploding boilers killed many a worker.  And innocent bystander.  Electric power was simpler and safer to use.  And it was more efficient.  Horses were stronger than man.  But increasing horsepower required a lot of big horses that we also had to feed and care for.  Electric motors are smaller and don’t need to be fed.  Or be cleaned up after, for that matter.

Today a 40 pound electric motor can do the work of one 1,500 pound draft horse.  Electric power and the electric motor allow us to do work no amount of teamed horses can do.  And it’s safer and simpler than using a steam engine.  Which is why the Roaring Twenties roared.  It was in the 1920s that this technology began to power American industry.  Giving us the power to control and shape our environment like never before.  Vaulting America to the number one economic power of the world.  Thanks to free market capitalism.  And a few great minds along the way.


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