A Historical Overview on Air Compressors

A Historical Overview on Air Compressors

Developments in the industrial world will not grow in leaps and bounds without the invention of piston compressors — mechanical devices that use pistons to produce high-pressure and high-temperature gases to equipment so it can perform certain tasks. In recent years, companies like Tooltown, Comairco, and Mac-Air promote piston compressors to clients for several industrial applications. Piston compressors are a result of several breakthroughs in air compressor technology, which dates as far back as ancient Egypt.

The inspiration for the development of the air compressor was the human lung and how it functions. Inventors observed how the human body exhales carbon dioxide and began using their breath to stoke fires.

When the world started needing molten metal for other material needs, inventors around 1500 BC also developed hand-held metal compressors called bellows, which produce concentrated blasts of air that can, in turn, create high-temperature fires.

Though the earliest air compressors were invented during these years, it wasn’t until 1650 when German physicist and engineer, Otto Von Guericke, invented the first vacuum pump. Vacuum pumps can remove gas molecules from sealed containers and leave behind partial vacuum.

Early Air Compressors

A Historical Overview on Air Compressors

In 1762, John Smeaton, an English engineer, introduced a blowing cylinder driven by a water wheel. The efficiency it offers began replacing bellows in popularity. Then, in 1776, John Wilkinson improved Smeaton’s discovery, which led to the development of the first prototype for mechanical compressors — a blasting machine that can produce high amounts of air pressure.

Over the years, more inventors made developments on the prototype, and in 1829, the first compound air compressor, a device that compresses air in successive cylinders, was patented.

Finally, in 1857, more industrial communities saw the benefits of air compressors and started using them for construction work, specifically in creating the Mount Cenis Tunnel in the Swiss Alps. Labours used air compressors on their drilling equipment, allowing the project to complete twice faster than expected.

The use of pneumatic tools was introduced to compressors in 1871. Simon Ingersoll from Ingersoll Rand used pneumatic tubes from a rock drill, where air would flow from one point to another, powering the drill. Another improvement on the compressor was invented in 1872, when water jets were used to cool cylinders. This development stressed the need of controlling the temperature of the air compressor to improve its efficiency.

20th century developments

A Historical Overview on Air Compressors

During the advent of the 20th century, more inventors sought to create improvements on air compressors to make it even more efficient. In 1926, it was A.A. Griffith who first noted that using air foils instead of flat blades would increase the performance of existing compressors. His research included a diagram of a compressor with a second turbine to power a propeller.

One of the leading 20th century companies that made developments on air compressors is Ingersoll Rand. In 1927, it provided air compressors for the construction of Mount Rushmore and supplied air compressors for the first atomic submarine in 1954.

Through the years, more scientific discoveries on improving air compressors continue to advance so that they can be used for more complex construction projects. To date, air compressors have three main categories depending on their design and function:

  • the piston or reciprocating compressor
  • rotary-screw compressor
  • centrifugal compressor

More companies have been providing piston, rotary-screw, and centrifugal compressors to industrial clients that need them.

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