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European Themeroute | Application of Power

From the Middle Ages until the late 19th century water and wind supplied the driving power for a huge variety of engines. Windmills dominated the flat lands of northwest Europe. In the 18th century around a thousand mills were standing alongside the banks of the River Zaan, near the trading centre of ... more

Icon: Application of PowerWhat drives us forward. European Theme Route Energy

From the Middle Ages until the late 19th century water and wind supplied the driving power for a huge variety of engines. Windmills dominated the flat lands of northwest Europe. In the 18th century around a thousand mills were standing alongside the banks of the River Zaan, near the trading centre of Amsterdam. They were used to process timber, flour and paper, and not least raw materials from abroad like tobacco and cocoa. For this reason the region around Zaandam is widely recognized as being one of Europe's earliest industrial areas. Around the middle of the 18th century people a small wind wheel began to be added to the mills: this enabled the blades to turn automatically in the direction of the wind. At the end of the century an English engineer invented a mechanism to enable the windmills to adapt to different wind strengths. He divided the blades into shutter-like segments which could be opened or closed as necessary.

There were more than 500,000 waterwheels in Europe at the time. They were used to drive all sorts of machinery ranging from paper mills, oil mills and sawmills to forging hammers. Later on, huge high-power wheels - some made of iron – supplied power to large textile factories and ironworks. Where water was scarce, horizontal waterwheels proved their worth – and these led to decisive innovations. In 1833 a French engineer by the name of Benoit Fourneyron invented the water turbine. This was more efficient because it channelled the water to flow alongside the axis without coming up against one vane after another as in waterwheels, but several at the same time.

Improvements primarily came from the agricultural areas of the USA which were rich in water. The Francis turbine, named after its inventor, was created in the textile centre of Lowell: it had movable vanes which enabled it to react better to the changing amounts of water. Finally an American by the name of Lester Pelton achieved a very high rate of revolutions by directing the concentrated power of a jet of water on to the turbine vanes. Nowadays his turbine is primarily used in mountain power stations where it is possible to exploit high waterfalls to the full.

It was only after 1870 that steam power began to replace water power. This major invention has a long prehistory: the first working model of a steam engine, built by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, was put into action to pump off pit water in a coalmine near Wolverhampton. Newcomen blew hot steam from below into a cylinder, thereby driving a piston upwards. He then sprayed cold water into the cylinder and the condensed steam produced a vacuum. The upshot was that the piston was then driven back downwards by pressure from the air outside.

Since the cylinder was being alternately heated by steam and cooled by water, a lot of energy was lost in the process and the engines needed a great deal of fuel. This is where improvements began. In 1769 James Watt made history by separating the condensing chamber from the cylinder. In this way he could keep the cylinder constantly hot and the condensing chamber constantly cool, thereby saving fuel. Next, with the aid of transmission he replaced the up-and-down movement by a rotation. Nonetheless the steam engine was still unable to compete with the continual rotation of large waterwheels. Watt rebuilt them in such a way as to enable the steam to drive the piston in both directions. He not only blew steam into the cylinder from below in order to drive the piston upwards, but also from above in order to drive it back down again. This resulted in a considerably smoother movement.

Starting in 1785 the Boulton & Watt factory began to deliver 'double-acting' steam engines. These proved to be the first really competitive universal engines, because they could be used on all sites independent of water or wind. For this reason the steam engine is regarded as the mother of industrial cities, which now began to shoot out of the ground. Steam power began its triumphal march in the booming textile industry, before moving over to coal mines and steelworks.

The next fundamental improvement took place around a hundred years later, once more in Great Britain, when Charles Parsons succeeded in directing the steam onto the vanes of a rotor so that the power could immediately be converted into a very quick rotary movement. The 1884 steam turbine is still regarded as the ideal method of producing electricity. Only in mountainous regions are water turbines more efficient.

Only in the 1880s did steam begin to be replaced by electrical power, even though the basic knowledge went back to the first half of the century. At that time the Englishman Michael Faraday discovered that you could create electricity in a wire-wound coil if it was rotated between the poles of a powerful magnet. This was the underlying principle behind the generator, known at the time as a dynamo, which could convert mechanical power into electrical power. The discovery only became economically viable after several experimenters realised that it was possible to maintain the magnetic field solely with the help of the electricity produced, without the need for any additional external source of electricity.

Following the so-called dynamo-electric principle, companies like Siemens & Halske in Berlin and the Belgian Théophile Gramme company in France began to build dynamo engines to drive things like arc lamps, which were able to produce a very bright light when placed between two carbon electrodes. It was only with the invention of the light bulb by Thomas Edison that a greater demand for electrical power set in.

The American discovered that carbonised bamboo filaments enclosed in glass did not catch fire but radiated on a continual basis. Carbonised filaments were later replaced by tungsten filaments. Edison, who was more a manager than an inventor, always had his eye on the market. He not only produced light bulbs but also planned power stations and grids. In 1882 he opened a central electricity work in New York. Companies in European countries were quick to follow: in Germany for example, the German Edison company (Deutsche Edison-Gesellschaft or DEG), which later became AEG.

Edison’s greatest competitor was gaslight because every industrial country already possessed a gas-supply network. Gas was produced by coal and first used for lighting purposes before being used for domestic heating and cooking. Although electric light became the major source of illumination in private households, gasworks remained an indispensable part of practically every local authority for around 100 years.

Around the turn of the 20th century, industry finally began to abandon steam power in favour of electricity: the triumphal march of electricity had finally begun. Since electricity was mainly produced by means of steam turbines, coal remained the most important source of power until the rise of the oil industry.

Even before the middle of the 19th century people from regions as far apart as Galicia and Baku, Alsace and Sicily where producing petrol from oil sources in order to fuel lamps. In 1840 a refinery was opened in Romania, and another in 1859 in Poland. There was a particularly large demand for petroleum in the west of the USA, where there were no gas supplies for the new settlers. The oil industry expanded rapidly - in Europe too – after Edward Drake successfully drilled for oil in Pennsylvania in 1859. Petroleum continued to be used for lighting purposes and the invention of the combustion engine towards the end of the century opened up new areas of use for the residual ingredients of crude oil: petrol and diesel.

Downham Market | United Kingdom
Denver Windmill is one of the finest examples of a working English tower mill. Once again Denver Windmill is milling wheat to produce flour in the traditional way using wind power only. The wind mill was built in 1835 and continued to grind corn using windpower for over one hundred years until 1941 ...
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Denver Windmill
Denver
PE38 0EG Downham Market, Norfolk, United Kingdom

Ely | United Kingdom
Tucked inside this tiny village, almost lost in the immense fenland landscape, is a fascinating industrial story. Prickwillow is a former diesel pumping station built to drain the fens. Man´s struggle to control this landscape took many generations and vast capital and human resources. Originally ...
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Prickwillow Engine Museum
The Museum of Fenland Drainage
Main Street Prickwillow
CB7 4UN Ely, United Kingdom

Fakenham | United Kingdom
At one time, every town and city in the United Kingdom had its own Gas Works producing Town Gas from coal. The process was originally developed by the inventive William Murdock. Murdock worked for Boulton and Watt in Cornwall supervising the installation of steam pumping engines in the mines. ...
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Fakenham Museum of Gas & Local History
Hempton Road
NR21 7LM Fakenham, United Kingdom

Greenfield | United Kingdom
A powerful spring, that in the middle ages was credited with religious significance, bursts out of the hillside near the town of Holywell and flows 3 km down the Greenfield Valley to the estuary of the River Dee. For many centuries the stream powered industrial concerns concerned with textiles, ...
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Greenfield Valley
Administration Centre
Basingwerk House
SH8 7GH Greenfield, United Kingdom

Houghton | United Kingdom
One of the largest timber-built water mills in Europe, Houghton Mill is open to the public for the main tourist season and welcomes around 14,000 visitors a year. There are 3 floors of information and interactive exhibits relating to the milling process and social history of milling. Visitors can ...
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Houghton Mill
Mill Street
PE28 2AZ Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom

Leicester | United Kingdom
The collection of artefacts at the museum in Leicester is one of the largest and most important in Europe relating to the manufacture, distribution and domestic uses of gas. The museum was established by the nationalised gas corporation in 1977 at a time of great change in the industry, when coal ...
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National Gas Museum
National Gas Museum Trust
PO Box 28 195 Aylestone Road
LE2 7QH Leicester, United Kingdom

Red, flat-topped spoil tips, known locally as ‘bings’, dominate the landscape of the Lothians. They are the legacy of the shale oil industry. Some can be seen from the approaches to the Forth Bridge. Production of oil from shales was begun in 1851 by James ‘Paraffin’ Young (1811-83), reached its ...
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Almond Valley Heritage Centre | Scottish Shale Oil Industry
Scottish Shale Oil Mines Light Railway
The Trust Millfield
EH54 7AR Livingston, United Kingdom

London | United Kingdom
The conversion of the Bankside power station in London into the United Kingdom’s National Museum of International Modern Art is one of the outstanding examples in Europe of the imaginative adaptation to new uses of an industrial building. The power station was one of several built in the ...
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Bankside power station | Tate Modern
Bankside
SE1 9TG London, United Kingdom

Maldon | United Kingdom
The massive Lilleshall triple-expansion steam engine No. 282 "Marshall" dominates the exhibition Halls at Langford. When the Langford Pumping Station was built during the 1920´s three of these huge marine engines were installed, brought here in sections by road and rail. Because it is so ...
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Museum of Power
Hatfield Road Langford
CM9 6QA Maldon, United Kingdom

Manchester was one of the very first industrial cities in the world. It is a byword for unrestrained capitalism and appalling social poverty; but also for its pioneering achievements. One of these was the first passenger railway service in the world - and with it the world’s oldest existing station ...
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The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester
Liverpool Road Castlefield
M3 4FP Manchester, United Kingdom

Rochdale | United Kingdom
Two of the most impressive mill engines in Lancashire are preserved at the Ellenroad Engine House near Rochdale. In 1890 the Ellenroad Spinning Company built a five-storey, 40-bay mill, designed by Stott & Son of Oldham, the most eminent textile mill architects of the time. It was 92 m long and 46 m ...
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Ellenroad Engine House Steam Museum
Elizabethan Row Newhay
OL16 4LE Rochdale, United Kingdom

Stowmarket | United Kingdom
The Museum of East Anglian Life is an open air landscape of buildings and machinery covering a huge 28 hectare site near the centre of one of East Anglia´s historic market towns, Stowmarket in Suffolk. This area has been long associated with the development of agricultural engineering and was a ...
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Museum of East Anglian Life
Stowmarket, United Kingdom

Thetford | United Kingdom
Charles Burrell is one of the famous names of traction engine manufacture. So what was a traction engine? Originally these were self-propelled steam engines weighing many tonnes and designed for driving farm machinery and hauling equipment from farm to farm. Most burned coal but a small number ...
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Charles Burrell Museum
Minstergate
IP24 2BN Thetford, Norfolk, United Kingdom

Totton | United Kingdom
The tide mill at Eling, on the west side of the north end of Southampton Water, is the only one of its kind in England that is still working and productive. A tide- powered mill has occupied the site for nine centuries, but the present mill building and dam date from a rebuilding in the 1770s, and ...
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Eling Tide Mill
The Tollbridge
SO40 9HF Totton, United Kingdom