The History Of Pneumatics

Post By: Tom Rowse On: 17-08-2022 Read Time: 5 minutes - Guides - Pneumatics

Pneumatics is one of the oldest technologies known to humanity. The first human to realise that fire burned brighter if you blew on it employed the technique, compressing the air inside the lungs and blowing it out in a stream stronger than a normal breath. The first compressor was an advance on this, making the process mechanical with the development of the bellows. And the first pneumatic tool was invented by the first hunter to discover that you could improve the speed and force of a projectile if you blew it hard through a tube.

Early Roots

Πνϵυμα (pneuma) in ancient Greek means “a blowing”, from the verb πνεω (pneo) to blow. It can refer to wind, air, breath or spirit, as in the breath of life – the lung, the organ of breathing, is called πνϵυμων (pneumon). From here it’s a short step to pneumonia, and also to pleurisy, which comes from a Greek linguistic variant of pleura for pneuma. The French word pneu means a tyre, which of course is full of air.

In recorded history, mechanical bellows were used as early as the Bronze Age to make furnaces hot enough for smelting metals. Archaeological finds have included a form of pot bellows used in 1800 BCE by the Babylonians, and a box bellows used by the Han Chinese in 200 BCE. This had a double-action piston with inlet and outlet valves. Sound familiar? This machine was later improved by attaching it to a water wheel, which allowed the whole contraption to be much bigger and thus develop more power.

Unfortunately, it took the Europeans some time to catch up. The first sheepskin bag bellows didn’t appear until well over a thousand years later, around 1100 CE. In 1450, the Venetians were also using a water wheel bellows, while a bellows air gun exists in a Swedish museum, dated to 1580. Apart from a brief look-in by Hero of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician of the first century CE who developed some rudimentary pneumatic tools, the story lags until around 1654. At that time, a German physicist called Otto von Guericke is recorded using air pressure for a crude vacuum pump. This was very soon refined by Robert Boyle, a chemist, who produced a single-action piston for his vacuum pump, and later a double-action one.

History of Pneumatics

Modern Developments

The 18th century was The Age of Enlightenment, when attention was focused on scientific discovery and natural philosophy. This was followed by the far more practical 19th century, when people started putting principles into practice and developing real-world uses for the pneumatic technique. The first compound air compressor was patented in 1829, but it wasn’t until 1872 that a water-cooled compressor system came into play.

Pneumatic tubes were invented in England in the Victorian period, some say by a Scottish engineer called William Murdoch (1754-1839). The tube system used compressed air to transport telegrams through pipelines connecting one telegraph station to another. This system was developed further later in the 1800s by John Wanamaker, an American merchant whose tube systems could transport mail and money. On a grander scale, a man called Alfred Beach built a much larger tube in 1870 to transport people, as a kind of pneumatic underground – but this project had to be abandoned when he couldn’t get it licensed.

In 1870, the construction of the Fréjus Rail Tunnel, connecting France to Italy through the Alps, pioneered the use of compressed air tools in a major construction project. These included wet air compressors and pneumatic drills. In 1871 Samuel Ingersoll took the drill a step further, inventing a percussion drill that changed the face of mining, excavation and road construction. A pneumatic-powered hammer invented by American engineer Charles Brady King in 1890 was an equally important tool, which became the mainstay for fastening steel structures together on ships and railway sleepers. King was a pioneer in the automotive industry – he later designed the first air brakes for cars.

Now And In Future

It's in the 20th century that the ball really starts rolling, with advancements coming thick and fast, particularly in the invention of labour-saving devices. Machinery was designed to assist or eliminate human input, including automatic tools and machinery and the first control systems. Pneumatic components like axial-flow and centrifugal compressors were also used in jet engines for the first time.

Other key pneumatic innovations of the 20th century include tools such as staplers, air brushes, impact wrenches, sandblasters and angle grinders, as well as roller coasters and dentistry tools. Pneumatic technology is used for building and subsequently providing the power for road, air and rail vehicles, plus large-scale building projects such as stadiums and skyscrapers. Pneumatic machines are now extensively used in the food and beverages industry, for conveying, mixing, compressing and packaging.

The end of the 1960s saw the introduction of digitally controlled pneumatic components like control valves, which revolutionised the industry. Pneumatics today continues to evolve, with innovations that improve performance, functionality and efficiency. Modern pneumatic cylinders provide accurate, controllable power for low-pressure applications, using safe and simple controls to enhance their performance. These can be found in a wide range of sectors, including medical devices and pharmaceuticals. In aeroplanes, pneumatic devices can stabilise gauges if there is an electrical failure, so that pilots can still control and land the plane safely.

In the 21st century, the advent of Industry 4.0 has brought modern pneumatic systems with Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) that greatly improve the overall levels of system intelligence. More advanced sensory inputs and connected devices mean that automated pneumatic systems are becoming familiar in manufacturing, and can even give their own feedback to operators and supervisors via big data communication. Smart pneumatics is on the doorstep for industry, with many advances in predictive maintenance and life-cycle analysis.

Pneumatics has a long and rich history, which can be ranked alongside stone tools as one of the earliest human accomplishments. Its development shows no indication of slowing down, with the regular discovery and release of innovative pneumatic solutions. Playing such an important role in so many different industries makes pneumatics a key feature of human evolution. Very likely it will continue as long as we draw breath.