the history of air compressors

Air compressors are used to power an incredible array of different devices. Those who have experience in engineering and construction are especially aware of this, as these machines are responsible for a great deal of the power used in these industries.

An air compressor works by taking air from the surrounding atmosphere and compressing it to high pressures through the use of a motor. Luckily, air compressors have a reasonably simple task to complete and do not need a large, ungainly mass of different parts to get it done. In fact, the compressor’s motor is relatively simple. Using a series of reciprocating pistons to compress the air, many compressor motors perform their task with crankshafts, connecting rods and a small number of other components.

The air that has been compressed by the pistons collects in a tank, where it awaits usage by tools. As the gas is depleted, a sensor in the air compressor will register that the pressure has dropped below a certain point. It will then automatically restart and return the gas to the desired pressure.

To activate tools, the air compressor’s tank is connected by a hose to the receiver on the device. As the apparatus discharges air pressure to perform its particular task, the compressor sends more air through the tube to compensate. This rate of air usage will vary from tool to tool, and it mostly dictates what size compressor you will need for a job. Matching the pressure requirements of your devices with the air pressure provided by a compressor is extremely important.

If air compressors have changed the way we do construction, then surely they must have had an interesting story before arriving. In fact, their story is not only interesting — it’s tied in with everything from our prehistory to the rise of our modern world. Whereas many current technologies seem to have sprung from nothing in the twentieth century, the origins of compressed air are as old as history itself.

The History of Compressed Air

In mathematics, there are so-called “natural” numbers. They are named because they are self-evident, and the logical conclusion is that anyone with an inclination to look would inevitably discover them. If ever such a machine existed, it would be the air compressor. Its invention was as inevitable as the discovery of pi. Largely, this is because we have our very own air compressors built into our bodies — our lungs.

We utilize our lungs’ compressing qualities whenever we blow on a struggling fire to supply it with oxygen, blow the dust off a surface or try to fill up a balloon. Prehistoric humans may not have known the exact mechanics of what was happening in their chest cavities — specifically, their diaphragms pressing upward on the lungs and creating pressure — but they understood the results.

first air compression inventions

Around 3000 B.C., people began practicing metallurgy more regularly. To obtain the high temperatures required to melt metal, one needed a steady stream of oxygen to blow onto the fire. They somehow scraped along with rudimentary means until the invention of bellows in around 1800 B.C.Bellows went through different iterations, but they are most commonly made of a flexible bag placed between two inflexible boards. Typically, these two boards are hinged together at one end, and they are then pumped together and apart to create alternating high and low pressure inside the bag. The result, of course, is a steady stream of air out the nozzle.

Bellows were superior to the human lung in several ways. First, the amount of pressure they could create was much higher than the lung, which at its peak can produce less than a tenth of a bar. Secondly, bellows could blow pure air, whereas lungs always blew a certain amount of carbon dioxide — a fire retardant. And finally, one is far less winded after operating a set of bellows than blowing on a fire repeatedly.

While small refinements were made here and there, the basic design of the bellows persisted unchanged for a staggering three millennia. It wasn’t until the 1760s when inventors began designing ways to rig the blowing machine to a water wheel, and from that time forward, things started advancing much more rapidly. It is worth noting, of course, that our fondness for bellows has not disappeared — they can still be found by fireplaces, in musical pump organs and many other devices.

The Invention of Air Compressors

invention of air compressors

As you might have guessed, it was the Industrial Revolution that saw the rethinking of bellows. In 1762, the inventor John Smeaton found a way to rig a water wheel to power a blowing cylinder. Smeaton enjoyed a brief run of success with his invention — but as is the case with revolutions, more change was soon to come. A few years later, just as his country was entrenched in losing the American Revolution, Englishman John Wilkinson’s hydraulic blowing machine came to prominence.

It was this hydraulic blowing machine that became the inspiration for modern air compressors. It was no surprise that the idea caught on, as during this period air compression was making its way to many different industries. 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. In 1857, a rail system was installed between Italy and France that bore an eight-mile tunnel full of workers. Because oxygen can quickly get used up in such environments, air compressors were responsible for moving air into the tunnel.

Half a century earlier was when air compressors appeared as more than just a way to move air — it also dawned on people they could transport energy. Much like the forthcoming era of electricity, this period saw a host of inventors exploiting compressed air’s other abilities. A plant in Wales used compressed air to power its workings in the 1820s. This gave rise to the idea that this might be even more effective than steam power, which was the height of technology of the day.

The very same 1857 rail tunnel that used air compressors for ventilation also used them for power. This came in the form of pneumatic drills, which both the French and Italian teams used to blast through rock inside the tunnel. Also known as a jackhammer, a pneumatic drill uses compressed air to power the up and down motion of its hammer.

first air compressor plant

A bit of a historical hiccup was occurring around this time. As compressed air grew in popularity, it created such a fervor that many believed it to be a way of the future. People in Paris thought it would replace electricity powering their city and others around the globe. In 1888, the engineer Viktor Popp — an unpromising name for a man specializing in high-pressure air systems — introduced the first compressor plant to Europe. This plant went from producing 1500 kW to 12 times that amount just three years later. At that time, it seemed compressed air was heading toward a very different kind of future.

The 1900s and the Road to Modern Air Compressors

As debates over whether compressed air would render electricity obsolete in Europe raged in Paris, the entire world seemed to be gearing up for its adoption. And while compressed air never did replace electricity, it did come to dominate in other areas. The twentieth century saw the air compressor go from a large, bulky engine that clanked and hissed to the sleek devices we know and love today.

How did it advance so quickly?

They say necessity is the mother of invention. But air compressors created a lot of new possibilities, which in turn increased the need for better air compressors — so, in a way, this invention was the mother of its own necessity. Let’s look at how six different industries or organizations spurred the development of better air compressors.

1. The Military

The twentieth century was an exciting century indeed, but World War I broke out soon after it started. While such a war caused unthinkable amounts of tragedy, it also had a positive upshot: it created a wave of new technology.

WWI introduced several new technologies to the world stage, all of which relied heavily on compressed air, including:

tanks and air compressors

  • Tanks: When the first tanks rolled into a French battlefield on September 15, 1916, enemies were shocked. These seemingly impenetrable machines had secretly been produced in Britain, and over the coming decades, they became a mainstay of combat. The large armor plates making up the tank’s skeleton are created by air compressors. Additionally, the hardware and many other parts of the track system are put in place using pneumatic tools. As tanks quickly became one of the most important parts of military operations — a distinction they continue to hold today — they helped push manufacturers to design better air compressors.
  • Automatic Assault Rifles: Though machine guns did not make their first appearance in WWI, they did play a much more significant role in the war than in the past. This has led to the modern assault rifle, which is assembled using air compressor-powered pneumatic drills and presses. Compressed air also powers the machines that cut their shapes. Having a mass-producible machine gun has contributed to the advancement of such technologies.
  • Military Submarines: To remain underwater for long periods of time, submarines must use compressed air — both in their construction and during use. This technology also played a significant role in the first world war, and it continues to do so today as submarine technology develops.

2. Large Cities

How did the United States manage to captivate the entire world in the 1900s? Of course, there was television, radio and cultural appeal — but perhaps nothing dazzled humanity like the dizzying heights of our cities and skyscrapers.

With a booming population and a national attitude of unbridled optimism, Americans got to work building the cityscapes of the future. As it turned out, there was an awful lot of use for air compressors in such endeavors. Here’s how the evolution of cities advanced the air compressor:

  • Large-Scale Hotels: Developers built hotels in the early twentieth century on a scale never before seen. This was partly to handle visitors and partly to handle the city’s own residents, as in the 1920s it was fashionable to live in a hotel if you were a member of high society. How were these large hotels built? They were bolted and pieced together mainly by machinery that used compressed air. Examples include the Plaza Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
  • Skyscrapers: The early 1900s also saw the construction of otherworldly high-rises. The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building are but two examples. For such buildings to not topple over, their foundations and structural beams needed to be rapidly threaded together. This technology was only possible through the use of air compressors.

air compressors were used to build stadiums

  • Stadiums: From those watching Jack Dempsey box to the lucky fans seeing Babe Ruth send baseballs to the moon, stadiums were a critical addition to cityscapes. Much like skyscrapers, they required large amounts of metal to be bound together in a timely fashion. Air compressors completed this job.
  • Cheap Housing: With new air compressors available to power such construction projects, it was possible to build box-like tenements for low-income families to occupy. Many of the methods for producing large apartment buildings remain today.

3. Airplanes and Helicopters

When Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in the summer of 1927, it was a momentous year for America. It was not long before large planes dotted the sky, ferrying passengers to faraway lands with speed that had once been unthinkable.

Wartime aircraft was a significant driver of air compressor technology. It is difficult to name a single part of an airplane or jet that is not created using compressed air — and this technology only grew more powerful as wars demanded increased production.

helicopters and air compression

The helicopter came into play in 1939, but it was during the Korean War when they proved to be invaluable. These aircraft are now among the best means of emergency medical transportation, moving quickly from place to place and performing other necessary tasks, like weather and traffic monitoring. Helicopters are not only manufactured using compressed air, but they also use air compression in their engines.

Finally, there are airports, which are among some of the most prominent structures on earth. They began popping up everywhere in the United States in the 30s and 40s, and they sometimes assume a scale that is hard to imagine. For example, the Denver International Airport, completed in 1995, covers an area of 53 square miles — nearly three times the size of the island of Manhattan. Air compressors had developed rapidly over the preceding century, making the quick construction possible.

4. The Spread of Suburbia

The 1940s began with war and ended with prosperity. Over the coming years, this success flourished in a way we had never been seen before. What was occurring was a revolution in middle-class living, and little could have summarized it better than the growth of suburban America.

The idea was simple but revolutionary: to create tidy, manicured homes in tidy, manicured neighborhoods. These would be located just outside of cities, which would combine the quiet of country life with the convenience and community of city life. It seemed everyone wanted a 2000 square foot house, a dog named Rover and 2.3 kids — and air compressors were the unsung hero making it all possible.

William Levitt was a federal government employee who dreamed up mass-producible homes. He implemented his plan on Long Island, where he built a neighborhood of two-bedroom dwellings geared toward family life. As these homes became more in demand, he used air compressors wherever possible to speed up construction.

People flocked toward the business model, so he did what any entrepreneur does when buoyed by success — he built more. At one point, Levitt was overseeing the building of 36 homes every day. The same quick methods and air-compressed tools that made suburban dwellings also created its schools and shopping malls. Construction was merely occurring faster than anyone could keep up with.

5. Home Appliances

The growth of suburbia, big cities, aircraft and military strength were drivers of the mid-twentieth century’s prosperity: invention and consumerism. One of the critical bridges between these two drivers was compressed air. Inventiveness dreamed up the products, compressed air created them and consumerism brought economic rewards to inspire more inventions.

home appliances and air compression

Home appliances blossomed with the success of suburbia, and the kitchen was a new hotspot for technology. Soon, everyone had to have a microwave oven, a refrigerator, a freezer, a toaster and a new stovetop. In the living room were new pieces of furniture like sofas, bookshelves and chairs, along with appliances like radios and televisions. With very few exceptions, compressed air and pneumatic tools were responsible for all of them.

As the decades went on, more and more appliances appeared. Computers, high-definition home theater systems, sound equipment and smaller phones have all become a part of the typical American home. These devices all come from assembly lines. And even as technology manages to grow smaller by the year, compressed air still makes these assemblies possible.

6. Food

We sometimes forget the abundance of food we enjoy today is closely tied in with technology. For food to be shipped all over the world, it must be made, canned, jarred, boxed or otherwise packaged with quality and speed. Compressed air powers the machinery that creates cans, jars, labels, lids and practically everything else associated with the product.

Boxes of cereal and snacks are almost entirely created with compressed air — except for the growing of the food itself, of course. Air compressors form and cut the pieces of cereal, as well as drive the machines that put them in the plastic bags and into their boxes.

Even baked goods have compressed air to thank for their products. The machines that mix the batter and ingredients are often powered by compressed air. If those products go into bags to be shipped elsewhere, air-powered tools place them in containers and packaging.

The Uses of Compressed Air Today

air compressors in modern society

Aside from its brief candidacy as the agent that would power cities, we haven’t run into many situations in which compressed air’s use was deemed impractical. Instead, air compressors have withstood the test of time, and we find more uses all the time. Today, air compressors are core components of engineering, mechanical work, factory assembly lines, construction, transportation and more.

Here are some of the most common uses of air compressors in our modern world:

  • Filling gas tanks with high-pressure air
  • Driving HVAC systems for larger buildings
  • Filling scuba diving tanks with pressurized, breathable air
  • Welding applications
  • Inflating tires
  • Cleaning a workstation

We also use them to power:

  • Engines
  • Hammer drills
  • Jackhammers
  • Nail guns
  • Sanders
  • Ratchets
  • Grease guns
  • Riveters
  • Speed saws

There is one final item to add to this list, lest we should forget where the air compressor came from: they are still used for metallurgy and keeping fires hot.

Come to Kaishan Compressor for Your Air Compressor Needs

Kaishan Compressor is a market leader in value and reliability in the world of air compressors. We believe in consistent quality and offer a wide range of products for all applications. Everything we sell is backed by our lifetime warranty, meaning your purchase is guaranteed forever.

If you are interested in air compressors of any sort for your industry, plant or workshop, we have you covered. Contact Kaishan Compressor today with any inquiries.

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