#TBT: The History of the Air Compressor
The air compressor, like many inventions, is the result of many years of scientific evolution and discoveries. We could begin the air compressor’s history with the human lung, the use of the wind power, the creation of metallurgy, or the invention of the long-lived bellow, but we’re going to start with the invention of the vacuum pump in the year 1650. A vacuum pump is a device that removes gas molecules from a sealed container and leaves behind a partial vacuum, or a space completely devoid of matter. German physicist and engineer, Otto Von Guericke is responsible for this invention. Von Guericke used his vacuum pump to experiment with air pressure and demonstrate how air worked with combustion. His experiments led the way for the future of compressed air.
Early Air Compressors
In 1762, English engineer John Smeaton invented a blowing cylinder that was driven by a water wheel. In 1776, English industrialist John Wilkinson installed a blasting engine in his machine shop that could produce 14.5 pounds of air pressure per square inch. In 1829, a compound air compressor was patented. In 1872, the compressor was improved with the use of water jets that cooled the cylinders. This greatly improved the systems efficiency, and in turn, emphasized the importance of controlling the temperature and moisture of the air that is being compressed.
Air Compressors in Construction
During the construction of the Mont Cenis Tunnel in the Swiss Alps in 1857, workers diligently drilled away at the rock manually at a speed of nine inches per day. At this rate, the project would take 30 years to complete. Compressed air was introduced to the drilling process in 1861, speeding up the drilling to 14.89 feet per day. Thanks to compressed air, the project was completed in 14 years.
The Introduction of Pneumatics
With all the contributions that compressed air had made up until this point in history, it’s no wonder that the next development was the use of pneumatic tools. Air compressors allowed power to transfer power from one point to another, which then led to the invention of pneumatic tubes in which the air would flow, creating this power. The first pneumatic tool to be recorded was the rock drill, invented by Simon Ingersoll of Ingersoll Rand in 1871. Ingersoll Rand also provided air compressors for the construction of Mount Rushmore in 1927 and for the first ever atomic submarine in 1954.
20th Century Developments
As technology continued to advance, so did the air compressor. Some air compressors needed to meet bigger and more complicated construction projects and some needed to be highly portable, and so the air compressor began to evolve into a variety of types. Today, there are three basic types of air compressors; reciprocating, rotary screw, and rotary centrifugal. These types can be specified even further depending on the number of compression stages, the cooling method (air, water or oil), the drive method (motor, engine, steam, other), and type of lubrication (oil, oil-free).