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Making the wheels go around

From water, steam and electricity to compressed air, this article gives a brief history of the factory through the ages and the energy that powered production

Atlas Diesel's Compressed Air Service, England.

Through the ages and across the globe, harnessing energy to provide motive force, increasing output and saving human effort, has been a constant aspiration. It is a quest that has resulted in the replacement of human and animal muscle power, employed the elemental sources of wind and water, encouraged scientific endeavour, and inspired mechanical innovation.

Though the ways in which energy has been sourced have changed, the story of their development stretches back millennia. For example, the Chinese were using coal for heating in 2000 BC, but things progressed more slowly in the West, where Great Britain’s first coalmine was not opened until around AD 1200.

Meanwhile, the first vertical water wheel was probably operating in the first century, while the mechanical method of grinding corn using windmill power is thought to have been developed around AD 644.    

New technologies evolve

Concrete breakers and compressor in London during the early 1920's

As the productive capabilities of applied power were realised, communities developed ever more powerful and efficient means to increase output. This led to a succession of new technologies, from wind and water power through to the harnessing of steam and, ultimately, the adoption of electricity.

At the same time, the ancient crafts of extracting ores and working metals determined the importance of air under pressure in the process, progressing from simple foot-operated bellows to today’s smart air compressor solutions.

However, there was not always rejection of one type of power source in favour of a newer development. In fact, the adoption of hybrid power applications is typified by just a couple of examples: a steam-powered pump employed to return water to a textile manufacturer’s watermill stream flow in times of drought, and perhaps one of the first primitive air compressors, created in 1762 when the inventor John Smeaton found a way to rig a water wheel to power a blowing cylinder. It was possibly the first major breakthrough in producing a constant supply of pressurised air in roughly 3,000 years – but more of that later! 

Water power and the factory system

Road workers in London for Atlas Copco Diesel

Since ancient times, hydropower from watermills has been used as a renewable energy source for irrigation, but also the operation of mechanical devices. In the Roman Empire, water-powered mills produced flour, but were also used in construction work for sawing timber and stone.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, water was the main source of power for new inventions, such as Richard Arkwright’s water frame, patented in 1769. Arkwright is also credited with inventing the prototype of the factory system, which saw the open water wheel concept evolve into a highly efficient enclosed turbine or water motor.

Moving from water to steam power

Although water power continued to be an essential energy source, the invention of the steam engine was the inspiration, the outstanding source of power and the major workhorse for industry, and eventually transport systems, throughout the Western world for almost 200 years.

However, working conditions were dangerous, dirty and dark. Coal-fired steam-raising meant workers emerged after long hours coated with soot and suffering from eye problems and lung diseases. The pioneering work of Newcomen and Watt with steam technology in the mid-1700s prepared the way for the development of sophisticated heat engines, innovations that in the early 20th century expedited the large-scale generation of electricity, which ultimately replaced steam. 

Clean power arrives

Ironically, a coal-powered steam engine attached to the world’s first electric generator at Thomas Edison’s plant in New York City provided the first electric light in 1880. Five years later an Italian named Galileo Ferraris produced the first two-phase electric induction motor. However, it was the chief electrician at the AEG company in Berlin who developed the ideas of both Nikola Tesla and Ferraris, with designs for a three-phase cage induction motor, still used today.

Shortly afterwards, a British patent was filed by Swedish engineer and inventor Jonas Wenström for the components of a three-phase electrical power system. In 1890 he built a three-phase generator that became the heart of the first AC power transmission system installed in Sweden.

Large-scale electrification of factories began around 1900 after the development of the AC motor. At first, large motors were added to workshop line shafts, but as soon as small-horsepower motors became widely available, factories switched to workplace unit drives. Eliminating line shafts freed factories from layout constraints and they became more efficient − in much the same way as many of today’s workplace stationary air compressors, sited at the point of use rather than in a remote compressor house.  

Compressed air comes of age

GA VSD compressor in 1994

With the Industrial Revolution, the mechanical air compressor was born, inspired by John Wilkinson’s hydraulic blowing machine. Far from just heating blacksmiths’ fires, the air compressor was now in use in metal mines, fabrication plants and in underground work areas where ventilation was needed.

The idea of using compressed air to transmit energy became popular around 1800 as metal manufacturing plants grew. Unlike steam, compressed air could be piped over long distances without incurring pressure losses due to condensation.

An early application was in the drilling of the eight-mile-long Mont Cenis rail tunnel in Switzerland in 1861, where compressed air plant powered pneumatic rock drills. It was an innovation that resulted in increased productivity over previous manual drilling methods. Furthermore, it contributed to the safety of the workforce by eliminating hazardous steam-driven tools and drills.

By 1891 Europe’s first dedicated compressed air plant in Paris was producing the equivalent of 18,000 kW across the city. Although it never outperformed electricity, the concept did spark interest in compressed air’s potential for production processes. Soon, inventors were moving in to patent a variety of tools that ran on compressed air.

It was the development of pneumatic tools, rock drilling equipment and compressors in this era that took the Swedish company, AB Atlas Diesel, founded in 1873, from producing rail rolling stock, boilers, and steam and diesel engines, to becoming a world-leading specialist in compressed air, with an impressive record of notable innovations. 1904 saw its first steam-driven piston air compressor. Fifty years later, the company introduced the first rotary screw compressor, based on an improved version of Alf Lysholm’s helical element concept.

A string of technical developments followed from the company, now known as Atlas Copco, including the first oil-free, electrically driven screw compressor in 1967, which opened up new opportunities for pure air for medical care and the food industry. In 1994 Atlas Copco launched the first fully integrated variable-speed drive compressor unit. This revolutionary new product made possible a whole new standard of energy efficiency in the industrial workplace. Further development saw energy consumption, noise levels and footprint dramatically reduced, and compressors connected via the internet into a factory’s network. This constant drive for innovation has turned compressed air from just an alternative power source into an essential fourth utility, supporting the smart factories of the 21st century and playing a crucial role in the production of just about everything in our homes, workplaces and leisure pursuits. 

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