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Air: An Indispensable Commodity for The Industrial World

What is compressed air? How does compressed air work? What is compressed air used for? Why is compressed air such an important piece of the modern, global chain of production?

These are all questions every day people do not ask or think to ask, because compressed air systems makes the global chain of production run smoothly and efficiently, so the products people need in industrialized countries are available when they need them.

Now with that thought in your head, take a deep breath and fill your lungs with air. Observe how your chest expands when your lungs fill to their fullest capacity with fresh oxygen from the environment around you. What happens next? We breath out of course.. but what does that entail? Rarely do humans think about how breathing works or how their body functions like a well oiled machine and more importantly, how that well oiled machine is kept running by the worlds 'first' air compressor.. the human lung! When we breathe out, our lungs compress to force the used air and carbon dioxide out of the same mouth and nose the air was brought in through.

This is the simplest way to explain the basics of a compressed air system. Prior to the first air compressor systems in human history, men functioned for thousands of years using their lungs as air compressors. Think about it for a second, when a person is lighting a camp fire, they stack wood around dry flammable material, light the dry flammable material on fire lean down and blow on the dry flammable material to force a greater amount of oxygen to pass through the dry material and cause it to combust at a greater rate. Humans did this for thousands of years until we realized that combustion created energy that could be used for a plethora of things. The issue we ran into was humans are not capable of producing a great enough amount of oxygen and pressurized air for high temperature utilization so we needed to expand our ability to move pressurized air. Since it was not possible to physically alter a humans lung size or capability in a positive sense, we knew it had to be done artificially: We created bellows.

Modernized Version of a Standard Bellow

Bellows, although primitive, were a very effective tool for producing air strong enough to bring fires to extreme temperatures. This revolutionized what we could do with natural metals in the earth around us. We used them primarily in forges for crafting metal into usable tools, weapons and other products. Prior to the invention of bellows around 1800 BC, humans crafted metal objects with extremely primitive means, there was a trial and error period where metal objects, weapons and tools primarily, were of extremely high value because they were difficult to craft.

The bellow slowly became an important part of the manufacturing world for steel and metal crafting over the course of the following centuries until John Smeaton, one of the first professionals to pioneer the world of engineering, constructed a water wheel that turned a cylinder and blew air at a much higher rate and capacity than the standard bellows in 1762.

John Smeaton

Smeaton was followed by the English inventor John WIlkinson in 1776, who crafted a much more efficient blowing device that produced extremely high amounts of air pressure. His invention would become the first prototype for mechanical air compressors in the future between the years of 1776 and 1829 when the first compound air compressor was patented.

John Wilkinson

One of the earliest applications of compressed air technology was the digging of the alpine tunnels in Switzerland. The Mont Cenis Tunnel, formally known as the Fréjus Rail Tunnel in the Swiss Alps, was a tunnel project forecasted to be completed in around 35 to upwards of 40 years, dug by hand. When the project headed by the Italian civil engineer Germain Sommeiller, began in in August of 1857, it was drilled by hand as initially forecasted and the crew was able to chip away at a meager 9 inches of new tunnel length in a days work. Four years later, compressed air was introduced to the project with newly engineered compressed-air drills.

Painting; Mont Cenis Tunnel, 1871
Germain Sommeiller | Genève à la carte

The ambitious tunnel project was twice the length of any tunnel ever constructed before it. With the introduction of compressed air drills, the tunnel was able to be completed in 17 September 1871, just over 13 years after construction began. This introduced a new era of diplomatic interaction between France and Italy all thanks to compressed air technology.

Compressed air technology was largely responsible for many advancements worldwide. In the Industrial Revolution in America, compressed air technology facilitated advancements in creation of steel, chemicals and electricity and pushed factory production into an entirely new realm of speed and efficiency.

Prior to 1900, Consumable and industrial goods that once had to be completed by hand were now mass produced in factories that used compressed air technology to operate stationary machines with the turn of the century.

by 1910 average Americans could own portable compressors on wheels. These portable compressors most commonly utilized one large, single stage compression cylinder driven horizontally by steam or oil engine and in 1933, the very first two-stage air-cooled portable compressor was manufactured.

So how does compressed air work and what is it used for? Why is the technology behind it such an important piece of the modern, global chain of production and the history of global industrialization?

Compressed air systems can be credited with many advancements made globally towards industrialization and manufacturing efficiency. The technology behind every day shop compressors is applied on a global scale in innumerable industries. The efficiency of its technology has improved the global economy in the world of manufacturing and industrialization to name just a few.

Air compressors are a pretty neat piece of technology. You get a flat tire, pull into a local tire shop or the Chevron a few blocks down the road and you use an air compressor to fill your tires. You get into your car to drive to the store for some ice-cream and its 95* F outside, you don't hesitate to turn on your Air Conditioner, a form of compressed air and refrigeration technology. I mean, think about it, what guy doesn't want a portable air compressor in their shop?

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