History of Compressed Air

The first air compressors were bellows used for metallurgy as far back as 2000 B.C. These low pressure devices were powered by hand, foot and later by a water wheel. Their use was mainly to fan fires hot enough to smelt and forge metal ores.  We still use this design today to pump up inflatable toys etc.

It wasn’t until later in history that it became possible to compress air using mechanical methods. These were crude air compressors powered by human and animal power. This severely limited their utility.

During the 18th century inventors experimented with boiling water, creating large quantities of gas that could cause solid containers to explode. It was James Watts who was responsible for harnessing the power of steam into a useable energy source. Between 1801-1862 the growth of mining led the way to the Holman Brothers developing their steam-powered rock drills. However, hot steam is hazardous and a ruptured steam line can kill or seriously injure a worker. Steam powered rock drills eventually gave way to drills powered by air compressors.

Piston pumps were first used by the Romans for transporting water as far back as 250 B.C. Building upon that idea, in the late 19th century, the mechanical compressor was born. These were designed as a steam engine in reverse and were powered by steam. During the steam engine era they were incorporated to power the air brakes.

The upper cylinder is for steam and the lower cylinder is the air pump. Both pistons are 11″ diameter and the stroke is 12″   The steam valves are at the top of the steam cylinder.  The compressor valves are on the back side of the compressor.

The 1930’s brought about the era of the screw compressor. The technology was first patented by Heinrich Krigar from Germany in 1878. This offered a more reliable, quieter and more efficient source of compressed air.  A screw compressor is a positive displacement machine that uses a pair of intermeshing rotors instead of a piston to produce compression.

Compressed air usage continued its growth during the 20th century. The U.S. Department of Energy showed that for a typical industrial facility, approximately 10% of the electricity consumed is for generating compressed air. A major breakthrough late in the 20th century was variable speed drive compressors which allowed for industrial applications to reduce the energy consumption required to create compressed air.

As we look into the future of compressed air, despite the arguments of energy consumption it is still a safe and viable method of transporting energy. Experiments are currently underway for storing energy from solar and wind power in their off-peak times as compressed air.

Compressed air has been a key player in the industrialization of our world and will continue to do so. The challenge is to use it wisely and efficiently.

EXAIR’s core business is to more efficiently use compressed air. Customers have saved thousands of dollars retrofitting inefficient air products with EXAIR’s engineered nozzles, jets, and air knives. Need ideas on renovating your system? Call one of our engineers at 1-800-903-9247.

Joe Panfalone
Application Engineer

Phone (513) 671-3322
Fax   (513) 671-3363
Web: www.exair.com
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One thought on “History of Compressed Air

  1. Storing power then as compressed air? It would then be released to turn a turbine to create electricity? I hadn’t even heard of the concept before.

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