Rotational Motion, Windmill, Waterwheel, Steam Engine, Compressed Air and Electric Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 24th, 2013

Technology 101

The Combination of Force and Current of Moving Water on a Waterwheel produced Rotational Motion

Through most of history man has used animals for their source of power.  To do the heavy work in our advancing civilizations.  And they worked very well for linear work.  Going long distances in a straight line.  Such as pulling a carriage.  Or a plow.  Things done outdoors.  A long place typically from where people ate and slept.  So animal urine and feces wasn’t a great problem.  But the closer we brought them to our civilized parts of society it became a problem.  For it brought the smell, the flies and the disease closer to our civilized part of life.

Animals were good for linear work.  But as civilization advanced rotational work became more important.  For as machines advanced they needed to spin.  The more advanced machines needed to spin at a fairly high revolutions per minute (rpm).  We have used animals to produce rotational motion.  By having them walk in a small circle.  To slowly turn a mill stone.  Or some other rotational machine.  But it was inefficient.  As animals can’t work continuously.  Especially when walking in a circle.  They have to rest.  Eat.  And they have to urinate and defecate.  Making it unclean.  And unhealthy.

The first great industrial advance was water power.  Using a waterwheel.  Spun by a current of water.  Either a large force of water moving slow and steady.  Like in a river.  Or a small force of water moving fast and furiously.  Like in a small waterfall.  This combination of force and current produced rotational movement.  And useable power.  The waterwheel produced a rotational motion.  This rotational motion drove a main drive shaft through a factory.  Gear trains could speed up the rpm produced by a slow river current.  Or reduce the rpm produced by a fast waterfall current.  To produce a constant rotational speed.  That was strong enough to drive numerous loads attached to the main drive shaft via belts and pulleys.

Compressed Air Systems allowed us to produce Rotational Motion at our Workstations

Water power was a great advancement over animal power.  But it had one major drawback.  You needed a moving current of water.  Which meant we had to build our factories on the banks of rivers.  Or under a waterfall.  One of the reasons why our first industrial cities were on rivers.  The steam engine changed that.  With a steam engine providing our rotational motion we could put a factory pretty much anywhere.  And the power of steam could do a lot more work than a moving current of water.  So factories grew larger.  But they still relied on a rotating main drive shaft.  Then we started doing something else with our steam engines.  We began compressing air with them.

A current of air can fill masts of sails and push ships across oceans.  Air has mass.  So moving air has energy.  We’ve used windmills to turn millstones to crush our wheat.  Where a large force of a slow moving wind current filled a sail.  And pushed.  But these small currents of air required large sails.  If we compressed that volume of air down and pushed it through a very small air hose we could get a force at the end of that hose similar to what we got with a sail catching a large volume of air.  This allowed us to create rotational motion at a workstation.  Without the need of a rotating main drive shaft.  We could connect an air hose to a handheld drill.  And the compressed air in the air hose could direct a jet of high pressure air onto an ‘air-wheel’ inside the handheld drill.  Which spun the ‘air-wheel’ at a very high rpm.  Spinning the drill bit at a very high rpm.

Compressed air was a great advancement over a rotating main drive shaft.  Instead of belts and pulleys connecting to the main shaft you just had to plug in your pneumatic tool to an air line.  The steam engine’s rotational motion would drive an air compressor.  Typically turning a crankshaft with two pistons attached to it.  When a piston moves down the cylinder it draws air into the cylinder.  When the piston moves up it compresses the air in the cylinder.  The compressed air exits the cylinder and enters a large air tank.  From this air tank they run a network of pipes throughout the factory.  From these pipes hang air hoses with fittings that prevent the air from leaking out.  Keeping the whole system charged under pressure.  Then a worker takes his pneumatic tool.  Plugs it into the fitting on a hanging air hose.  As they snapped together you’ll hear a rush of air blow out.  But once they snap together the joined fittings became airtight.  When the worker presses the trigger on the pneumatic tool the compressed air blows out at a very high current.  Spinning an ‘air-wheel’ that provides useful rotational

Electric Power generated Rotational Motion eliminated the need of Steam Engines and Compressed Air Systems

As good as this was there were some drawbacks.  It takes time to produce steam when you first start up a steam engine.  Once you have built up steam pressure then you can start producing rotational motion so the air compressor can start compressing air.  This takes time, too.  Then you need a lot of piping to push that air through.  A piping system than can leak.  It was a great system.  But there was room for improvement.  And this last improvement we made was so good that we haven’t made another in over 100 years.  A new way to provide rotational motion at a workstation.  Without requiring a steam boiler.  And air compressor.  Or a vast piping system charged with air pressure.  Something that allows us to plug in and go right to work.  Without waiting for steam or air pressure to build.  And that last advancement was, of course, electric power.

When voltage (force) pushes an electrical current through a wire we get useable power.  Generators at a distant power plant produce voltages that push current through wires.  And these wires can run anywhere.  In the air.  Or underground.  They can travel great distances at dangerous high voltages and low currents.  And we can use transformers to change them to a safer low voltage and a higher current in our factories.  And our homes.  Where we can use that force and current to produce useful rotational motion.  Using electric and magnetic fields inside an electrical motor.

Animals were a poor source of rotational power.  The windmill and the waterwheel were better.  The windmill could go anywhere but the rotational motion was only available when the wind blew.  Waterwheels provided continuous rotational motion but they only worked where there was moving water.  Keeping our early factories on the rivers.  The steam engine let us build factories where there was no moving water.  While an air compressor driven by a steam engine made it much easier to transfer power form the power source to the workstation.  While electric power made that transfer easier still.  It also eliminated the need of the steam engine and the pneumatic piping system.  Allowing us to create rotational motion right at the point of work.  With the ease of plugging in.  And pressing a trigger.  Allowing machines to enter our homes to make our lives easier.  Like the vacuum cleaner.  The clothes washer.  And the air conditioner.  None of which your average homeowner could operate if we depended on a main drive shaft in our house.  Or a steam engine driving a pneumatic system.


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Animal Power, Waterwheel, Ship Transport, Steam Engine, Railroad, Steel Industry, Robotics, Rust Belt and Minimills

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 14th, 2012

Technology 101

Rent-Seeking Captains of Industry and Commerce give Capitalism a Bad Name

Once upon a time you lived, worked and died all within a short walk from each other.  In feudalism people owned land and lived well.  The landed aristocracy.  And other people (the peasants) worked the land.  But did not live as well as those who owned it.  For it was back-breaking work for long hours with no respite except in death.  For those who worked the land belonged to the land.  Just as the trees and fields and rivers did.  Peasants belonged to the land and the land belonged to the landowner.  The peasants couldn’t leave.  And they couldn’t work hard to provide a better life for their children.  For they were bond to the land as their patents were.  With no choice but to work the land like their parents did.

This was how life was before we started to use power to make our work easier.  We had long been using animal power to do things we didn’t have the strength or the endurance to do.  Such as pulling a plow.  Or a wagon full of goods.  Or to travel great distances more quickly than we could by walking.  Harnessing the power of moving water changed all of that.  For a river moves constantly.  And when you place a waterwheel in moving water you can convert the linear motion of the water into rotational motion.  This rotational motion could turn a main shaft running though a factory.  Belts and pulleys could transfer this power to workstations throughout the factory floor.  And these powered workstations could do far more work than a person could.  Lumberjacks could transport logs down a river to a lumber mill.  Where a waterwheel could spin a saw that made lumber out of those logs at such a rate that great cities could arise around these mills.  Cities with other factories powered by waterwheels.  And homes.

So it’s no surprise that our early cities grew up on rivers.  Both for water power.  And the ability to use them to ship bulk goods.  Ship transport.  Something even animals weren’t good at.  It is in these cities that wealth and political power grew.  Centers of industry and commerce.  Creating great wealth for those who controlled the resources that made all of that possible.  So another aristocracy grew.  Rent-seeking captains of industry and commerce.  Who give capitalism a bad name.  Who use their political power to maximize their profits.  And buy favors from those in power to protect their particular interests.  Such as using the power of government to create monopolies for themselves.  But advancing technology made that harder to do.  Especially the steam engine.  And the railroad.

The Steel and Heavy Manufacturing Industries required a Massive Infrastructure and Regionally Located Raw Materials

Control of rivers, ports and harbors provided a great opportunity to amass wealth at other people’s expense.  For when economic activity centered on water it made land around that water very valuable.  Which concentrated wealth and power on the rivers.  Until the steam engine replaced the waterwheel.  And the railroad provided a way to transport people and goods inland.  So not only did cities grow up along the waterways they grew up along the rail lines.  Those controlling these resources still had great wealth and power.  But they also offered competition.  And more economic liberty.  For while there can only be one Tennessee River flowing through Chattanooga, Tennessee, there can be more than one railroad running through Chattanooga.  Which made Chattanooga an important city to hold during the American Civil War.  For there was a great rail junction in that city.  Giving anyone who controlled the city access to any part of the Confederacy.

While the steam engine and railroad allowed industries to grow anywhere in the country some industries still clustered in regional areas.  Such as the steel industry.  It required three ingredients to make steel.  Iron ore, coke (coal cooked into hard charcoal briquettes) and limestone.  To make steel you use 6 parts iron ore, 2 parts coke and 1 part limestone.  Iron ore was plentiful around Lake Superior.  Because it takes a lot of iron ore and a lot of iron ore is located around Lake Superior the steel makers built their mills long the Great Lakes.  In Milwaukee.  Chicago.  Gary.  Detroit.  Toledo.  Cleveland.  Or in places like Pittsburgh where coal and iron ore deposits surround the city.  These cities made up the Manufacturing Belt.  Places with access to bulk ore shipping (on Great Lakes freighter or river barge).  And where the steel mills arose so did heavy industry that built things from that steel.  From structural steel.  To automobiles.

For a while these new industries dominated the economic landscape.  Big, heavy industries that couldn’t move.  Concentrating money and political power.  Giving rise to organized labor.  Who took advantage of the fact that these heavy industries could not move.  Negotiating lucrative union contracts.  With generous pay and benefits.  Raising the price of steel and the things we made from steel.  Like automobiles.  Making the rank and file like rent-seekers of old.  Looking to personally benefit from their near-monopoly conditions.  Like those early captains of industry and commerce.  Life was good for awhile for the rank and file.  Who lived very well.  And better than most American workers.  Thanks to those monopoly-like conditions in these steel and heavy manufacturing industries.  Allowing them to charge high prices for their goods to pay for those generous pay and benefits.  As there was no competition.  For the steel and heavy manufacturing industries required a massive infrastructure and an abundant supply of regionally located raw materials, making it very difficult for a new competitor to open for business.  At least, in the United States.

High Costs and Low Efficiencies have shuttered most of America’s Steel Making Past

Foreign competition changed all that.  And large ocean-going ships.  So new industries in other countries with lower labor costs could manufacture these goods and ship them to the United States.  And did.  Challenging the monopoly-like conditions of the rent-seeking steel and heavy manufacturing industries.  So the rent-seekers turned to government for protection.  And got it.  Import tariffs.  Which raised the price of those imported goods to the higher price level of the domestic goods.  Which did two things.  Insulated the domestic manufacturers from market pressures allowing them to continue with the status quo.  And forced the foreign manufacturers to find less costly and more efficient ways to make their goods to counter those import tariffs.

So what happened?  Technology advanced in these industries overseas while they stagnated in the US.  The US didn’t invest in new technologies like they did in the previous century to find better ways to do things.  Because they didn’t have to.  While the foreign competitors worked harder to find better ways to do things.  Because they had to.  As they weren’t insulated from market forces.  The Japanese invested in robotics.  Transforming their auto industry.  Improving quality and lowering costs.  Making their cars as good if not better than the Americans did.  And selling them at a competitive price even with those import protections.  So what did these US actions to protect the domestic manufacturers do?  Changed the Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt.

The big steel cities in America are no more.  High costs and low efficiencies have shuttered most of America’s steel making past.  Gone is the era of the sprawling steel mill.  Today it’s the minimill and continuous casting.  Small and efficient steel mills with small labor forces that can make small batches.  Thanks to their electric arc furnaces that are easy to turn on and off.  Unlike the big blast furnaces that took a while to reach operating temperatures and when they did they didn’t shut them down for years.  Making it difficult to adjust to falling demand.  Like the minimills could.  Which helped save the steel industry by finally adopted technology that allowed it to sell at market prices.  Making it harder for the rent-seekers these days.  But better for consumers.  Because of this relentless march of technology.  That allows us to continuously find better ways to do things.


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Flint Tools, Levers, Wheels, Animal Power, Water Power, Wind Power, Steam Power, Electrical Power, Nuclear Power and Solar Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 22nd, 2012

Technology 101

Man harnessed the Energy in Moving Water with a Water Wheel

When prehistoric man first chipped a piece of flint to make a sharp edge he learned something.  It made work easier.  And his life better.  This tool concentrated his energy into that sharp edge.  Increasing the amount of energy he could put to work.  Allowing him to skin an animal quickly and efficiently like never before.  Making better hides to protect him from the elements.  Yes, he said, this tool is good.  But in a somewhat less sophisticated manner of speech.

From that moment forward it has been man’s singular desire to improve on this first tool.  To find ways to concentrate energy and put it to work.  Levers allowed him to move heavier things.  Wheels allowed him to move heavier loads.  The block and tackle allowed him to lift or pull heavier weights.  Harnessing animals allowed him to do all of these things even better.  And we would use animal power for millennia.  Even today they still provide the primary source of power for some less developed countries.

But animals have their limitations.  They’re big, they eat, drink, pee and poop.  Which doesn’t make them an ideal source of power to turn a mill wheel.  A big wheel that grinds grain into flour.  It’s heavy.  But it doesn’t have to spin fast.  Just for long periods of time.  Then man had another moment like he did when he chipped a piece of flint.  He noticed in his environment that things moved.  The wind.  And the water in a river.  The wind could blow fast or slow.  Or not at all.  But the water flow was steady.  And reliable.  So man harnessed the energy in the moving water with a water wheel.  And connected it to his mill wheel via some belts and pulleys.  And where there was no water available he harnessed the less reliable wind.

The Steam Engine eliminated the Major Drawbacks of Water Power and Wind Power 

The water flowed day and night.  You didn’t have to feed it or clean up after it.  And a strong current had a lot of concentrated energy.  Which could do a lot of work.  Far more than a sharpened piece of flint.  Which was ideal for our first factories.  The water wheel shaft became a main drive shaft that drove other machines via belts and pulleys.  The main drive shaft ran the length of the factory.  Workers could operate machinery underneath it by engaging it to the main drive shaft through a belt and pulley.  Take a trip to the past and visit a working apple mill powered by a water wheel.  It’s fascinating.  And you’ll be able to enjoy some fresh donuts and hot cider.  During the harvest, of course.

While we built factories along rivers we used that other less reliable source of energy to cross oceans.  Wind power.  It wasn’t very reliable.  And it wasn’t very concentrated.  But it was the only way you could cross an ocean.  Which made it the best way to cross an ocean.  Sailors used everything on a sailing ship from the deck up to catch the wind and put it to work.  Masts, rigging and sails.  Which were costly.  Required a large crew.  And took up a lot of space and added a lot of weight.  Space and weight that displaced revenue-earning cargo.

The steam engine eliminated the major drawbacks of water power and wind power.  By replacing the water wheel with a steam engine we could build factories anywhere.  Not just on rivers.  And the steam engine let ships cross the oceans whenever they wanted to.  Even when the wind didn’t blow.  And more space was available for revenue-earning cargo.  When these ships reached land we transferred their cargoes to trains.  Pulled by steam locomotives.  That could carry this revenue-earning cargo across continents.   This was a huge step forward.  Boiling water by burning coal to make steam.  A highly concentrated energy source.  A little of it went a long way.  And did more work for us than ever.  Far more than a water wheel.  It increased the amount of work we could do so much that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

With Nuclear Power our Quest to find more Concentrated Forms of Energy came to an End 

We replaced coal with oil in our ships and locomotives.  Because it was easier to transport.  Store.  And didn’t need people to shovel it into a boiler.  Oil burners were more efficient.  We even used it to generate a new source of power.  Electrical power.  We used it to boil water at electrical generating plants to spin turbines that turned electrical generators.  We could run pipelines to feed these plants.  Making the electricity they generated even more efficient.  And reliable.  Soon diesel engines replaced the oil burners in ships and trains.  Allowed trucks and buses to run where the trains didn’t.  And gasoline allowed people to go anywhere the trains and buses didn’t go.

The modern economy ran on petroleum.  And electricity.  We even returned to the water wheel to generate electricity.  By building dams to build huge reservoirs of water at elevations.  Creating huge headwater forces.  Concentrating more energy in water.  Which we funneled down to the lower elevation.  Making it flow through high-speed water turbines connected to electrical generators.  That spun far faster than their water wheel ancestors.  Producing huge amounts of reliable electrical power.  We even came up with a more reliable means to create electrical power.  With an even more concentrated fuel.  Fissile material gave us nuclear power.  During the oil shocks of the Seventies the Japanese made a policy change to expand their use of nuclear power.  To insulate them from future oil supply shocks.  Which it did.  While in America the movie The China Syndrome came out around the time of the incident at Three Mile Island.  And killed nuclear power in America.  (But as a consolation prize we disproved the idea of Keynesian stimulus.  When the government created massive inflation with Keynesian policy.  Printing money.  Which raised prices without providing any new economic activity.  Causing instead high inflation and high unemployment.  What we call stagflation.  The Japanese got a big Keynesian lesson about a decade later.  When their massive asset bubble began to deflate giving them their Lost Decade.)

And with nuclear power that quest to find more ways to make better and more efficient use of concentrated energy from that first day we used a flint tool came to an end.  Global warming alarmists are killing sensible sources of energy that have given us the modern world.  Even animal rights activists are fighting against one of the cleanest sources of power we’ve ever used.  Water power.  Because damming rivers harms ecosystems in the rivers we dam.  Instead political pressures have turned the hands of time backwards by using less concentrated and less efficient sources of energy.  Wind power.  And solar power.  Requiring far greater infrastructure installations to capture far less amounts of energy from these sources.  Power plants using wind power and solar power will require acres of land for windmills and solar panels.  And it will take many of these power plants to produce what a single power plant using coal, oil, natural gas or fissile material can generate.  Making power more costly than it ever has been.  Despite wind and sunshine being free.  And when the great civilizations become bankrupt chasing bankrupt energy policies we will return to a simpler world.  A world where we don’t make and use power.  Or machinery.  Much like our flint-tool using ancestors.  Albeit with a more sophisticated way of expressing ourselves.


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