The history of air compressors dates back to kiln fires.
Prior to the air compressor, the human lung produced air as the earliest “air compressor.” Humans would blow on their fires to create a hotter fire for pottery and cooking. By 3,500 B.C., kilns in West Asia were created with tubes that ran into the firebox through which slaves could blow to create a concentrated blast and increase the heat.
Healthy lungs are only capable of producing .02 to .08 bar. Since 1 bar is 14.5 PSI, this equates to .29 to 1.16 PSI. The low-pressure output and high carbon dioxide content of breath cannot provide the air pressure needed to sustain hot, metalworking fires.
An air compressor works just like the lungs do. Air is drawn in and then forced out into a smaller, high-pressured space.
The earliest tool used to compress air are the bellows.
The Chinese have one of the earliest bellow designs. In the Han Dynasty during the 4th century BC, ox hide bellows are recorded as being in heavy use. These were replaced by piston bellows — where a piston is pulled inside of an airtight box — by the Song Dynasty around 960 AD.
By 1800 BC, pot bellows were being used by the Hittites and Babylonians to smelt iron and melt glass. Pot bellows were small clay pots covered with leather. These foot-operated bellows created better air production to the fires.
Jumping forward nearly 3,000 years, the German scientist Otto von Guericke created an air pump system in 1650. He used this single piston and cylinder design for his experiments in compressed air and the vacuum pump.
During the industrial revolution, in 1762, professional engineer John Smeaton created a compressed air pump that was driven by a waterwheel. This arrangement was used to increase the productivity of blast furnaces from 12 tons to 40 tons per day, ushering in the age of cheap iron. These first air compressors only generated a whopping 14 PSI but were critical to the early progress of the industrial revolution.
John Wilkinson later created a more efficient blowing engine for his blast furnaces for achieving higher temperature fires. He received a patent for this design in 1776, and this “blowing engine” design served as a rudimentary precursor to the air compressors of today.
Blowing engines (sometimes called “blasting machines”) continued to be the primary air source for iron smelting furnaces through World War II. With the rise of diesel engines and rotary blowers, the old factories upgraded or closed, and by the 1950s, blowing engines were hard to find.
George Medhurst, however, is the mechanical engineer who is generally considered the inventor of what would become the modern air compressor. He designed the first motorized air compressor to be used in mining in 1799, receiving a patent for a “wind pump”. However, most of his life’s work was focused on using air pressure as a form of transportation. His “Aeolian engine” was his main focus.
It was about this time that compressed air began finding its use in mining and diving operations. Compressed air was used to hold back the Hudson river in 1880 during a first attempt at creating a tunnel under the river.
Tunnel-creation tends to get the credit for the next compressed-air development. The 1857 construction of the 8-mile long Mont Cenis tunnel as part of the Italy France rail system featured the use of a pneumatic drill created by Germaine Sommeiller. It was powered by a ram air compressor, also of his design.
While it was thought that much of the ventilation would also be provided by the compressor, large supplemental fans also helped to provide ventilation for this tunneling work.
The Month Cenis tunnel was slated to take 25 years to complete but was finished in just 14 years thanks to the use of pneumatic drills and dynamite.
During the construction of the Hoosac tunnel, Simon Ingersoll’s improved drill design proved essential to the completion of that project.
The Paris Compressed-Air Network
Following the success of the Mont Cenis tunnel, Austrian Engineer Viktor Popp proposed a city-wide pneumatic system for Paris. While London had a large hydraulic system, this air-powered city-wide network was unique.
It started as a system for running synchronized clocks throughout the city by supplying 1 pulse of air every second. The system then rapidly grew into the Compagnie Parisienne de l’Air Comprime so that by 1885, Popp’s steam-powered compressor plant was even being used to power electrical generators, growing into an 18,000 kW plant by the end of 1888.
Compressed air was billed as a safer alternative to electricity, and at its peak, 900 miles of piping were used to transmit pneumatic energy throughout Paris. Air-compressed motors powered small household devices throughout Paris.
Modern Air Compressors in The 20th Century
By the 1920s, it was clear that the electric motor and gasoline automobile engine were going to win the utility race — not air compressors. At this point in the history of air compressors, the use shifted to a purely industrial focus.
Air compressors became smaller, more portable, and better suited for construction and assembly-line purposes. Large Worthington Air Compressors powered the Ford factory lines from a central compressor plant powered the pneumatic tools in the factory.
As an example of an early 1900’s compressor, this Mantiques Air compressor made in 1925 was manufactured by the United States Air Compressor Company from Cleveland Ohio.
This early 1900’s design is almost identical to today’s modern compressor. As you can see, it looks much like the rotary piston compressors that you would put in your shop today.
Compressed air systems today, power every factory, every construction site, and every mechanic shop. Cars and Trucks are all assembled with tools that use compressed air.
Pressurized air was even used as an HVAC control mechanism through the 1990s, allowing automated remote control of the air conditioning in large buildings.
Modern Compressed Air Systems
Compressors today power the air tools that build our nations. Here is a summary of the most popular operational types found today.
Positive Displacement Compressors
In this model, the air compressor takes in air and then squeezes it into a smaller space to increase the pressure. The Reciprocating compressor found in small workshops across the country, uses this operating principle to draw air in through a large intake and push it out through a small one-way outlet valve.
Dynamic compressors use blades that rotate rapidly and increase the static pressure of the gas (atmospheric air) in the pressure. These would include the rotary compressors and the screw compressor that takes in air at the center of a bladed wheel and push it out through a small, high-pressure shaft. The dynamic compressor is used in manufacturing cases where a high volume of pressurized air is needed, or for cooling systems.