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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.

Vik i Sogn | Norway
Refsdal power plant was build in 1913 in the typical style of early power plant of its time in rural districs of Norway. The plant presents a complete display of a hydroelectric power station with intake dam, pipe line, production building and outlet canals which all have undergone an extensive ...

Refsdal Power Plant 1913
Refsdal Kraftstasjon
Tourist Information of Vik c/o Blix Hotell Sentrumsgata
6893 Vik i Sogn, Norway

Housed in La Energía, an Art Nouveau building in Plaça del Gas, the Gas Museum takes visitors on a journey through the development of the gas and electricity industries in the 19th and 20th centuries. Reviewing the social changes brought about by the use of new technologies and inventions, the ...

The Gas Natural Fenosa Foundation Gas Museum
Museo del Gas de la Fundación Gas Natural Fenosa
Plaza del Gas, 8
08201 Sabadell, Spain

Burton upon Trent | United Kingdom
Enthusiasts of steam and all the connected paraphernalia are in for a treat at this richly informative attraction in Staffordshire. This is thought to be Britain’s most complete Victorian pumping station and is crammed with tools and equipment from the period, all kept in pristine condition. There ...

Claymills Victorian Pumping Station
Meadow Lane Stretton
DE13 0DA Burton upon Trent, United Kingdom

Carrickfergus | United Kingdom
The gasworks at Carrickfergus was characteristic of those built in small towns all over Europe in the mid-19th century when the growth of main line railways made possible the distribution of coal to most parts of the continent. The works was opened in 1855, and the last significant alterations made ...

Flame - The Gasworks Museum of Ireland
44 Irish Quarter West
BT38 8AT Carrickfergus, United Kingdom

Neath | United Kingdom
In 1584 Ulrich Frosse exploited the natural resources of Aberdulais to smelt copper ‘…far from the pryinge eyes of his competitors’. His pioneering work helped Wales to become the world’s first Industrial nation. And as water continued to cascade through the centuries, the industries continued to ...

Aberdulais Tinworks and Waterfall
SA10 8EU Neath, United Kingdom

Wakes Colne | United Kingdom
The East Anglian Railway Museum is not only home to the most comprehensive collection of period railway architecture and engineering in the Region, but is also based at a working railway station on historic Stour Valley railway line, dating from 1847-1849. The Station House dates from the 1890´s ...

East Anglian Railway Museum
Chappel and Wakes Colne Station
CO6 2DS Wakes Colne, United Kingdom

Timelkam | Austria
One of Austria’s largest thermal electric power stations is at Timelkam, 20 km north-west of Gmunden. Associated with the power station is the interpretation centre called Elebnis Welt Energie (Adventure World Energy), which has two principal exhibitions, one showing the technology used in the 21 ...

Adventure World Energy
Mühlfeld 2
4850 Timelkam, Austria

Vienna | Austria
The technical museum in Vienna holds many artefacts of significance to the industrial history of Europe. It was formally established in 1908, with Dr Ludwig Erhard as its director, as part of the jubilee celebrations of the Emperor Franz Josef, but it was not opened until 1918. The museum has an ...

Technical Museum
212 Mariahilfer Strasse
1140 Vienna, Austria

Zwentendorf-an-der-Donau | Austria
Zwentendorf is probably the best place in Europe in which to study a nuclear power station, although no electric power was ever generated there. It was built as the first of three projected nuclear power stations in Austria. It was completed, but was never put into operation after a referendum of 4 ...

Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant
Sonnenweg 2
3435 Zwentendorf-an-der-Donau, Austria

Pisek | Czech Republic
Pisek is a town of about 30,000 people built around an ancient stone bridge over the River Otava. One of its distinctions is that it was the first town in the Czech lands to have electric street lighting. An electrical engineer František Křižik first provided lighting from generators driven by a ...

Power Plant Museum
Elektrárna královského města Písku
V Podskalí 2537
39701 Pisek, Czech Republic

Bjerringbro | Denmark
Bjerringbro stands on the River Gudena, 8 km north-east of the town of Tange, which itself lies 25 km south-east of Viborg. Energimuseet is a museum and an interactive scientific discovery station situated close to Tangevaerket, Denmark’s largest hydro-electric power station, commissioned in 1920.  ...

Energy Museum
Bjerringbroveg 44
8850 Bjerringbro, Denmark

Copenhagen | Denmark
DieselHouse celebrates and explains the role of the diesel engine, particularly the marine diesel engine, during more than a century of development. It also commemorates the work of the outstanding Danish engineering firm Burmeister & Wain, dating from 1843, which gained the Danish rights for the ...

Diesel House
Teglholmsgade 4
DK 2450 Copenhagen, Denmark

Hobro | Denmark
The gasworks of 1898 at Hobro, a small town at the head of the Mariager Fjord in north Jutland was adapted as the national museum of the gas industry in Denmark and opened in 2002. The first gas plant for public supply in the country opened in Odense in 1857. At the industry’s peak there were 112 ...

The Danish Gas Museum
Gasvǽrksvej 2
9500 Hobro, Denmark

Horsens | Denmark
Horsens is a city with long commercial and industrial traditions. The Museum was opened in 1977 in the municipal power station building of 1906. Displays including steam engines, printing, brewing and tobacco-working machines, all displayed in the context of their social environment. Two workers’ ...

Danish Industrial Museum
Industrimuseet museet for produktion, levevilkår og finansiel udvikling
Gasvej 17
8700 Horsens, Denmark

Kongens Lyngby | Denmark
Molleaen, the 12 km long Mill Stream, north of Copenhagen, powered nine mills, and was for many centuries one of the reasons for the prosperity of the Danish capital. It has been called the Cradle of Danish Industry. The various mills were used for grinding grain, fulling woollen cloth, making ...

National Open Air Museum
Frilandsmuseet ved Sorgenfri
Kongevejen 100
2800 Kongens Lyngby, Denmark

Kohtla | Estonia
The Kohtla area as one of the centres of the Ida-Virumaa mining area of north-east Estonia. It is one of Europe’s principal sources of shale oil which was extensively mined in the 20th century and is still being extracted to be used in generating electric power. Mining began in 1916, and production ...

Estonian Mining Museum
Eesti Kaevandusmuuseum
Jaama t. 1
30305 Kohtla, Estonia

Talinn | Estonia
The energy discovery centre in Talinn is located in an early twentieth century power station. The collection was re-displayed on interactive principles in 2014 and is reckoned by many visitors to be one of the outstanding attractions in the city. There are displays of lightning and spectacular ...

Energy Discovery Centre
Energia Avastuskeskus
Pöhjo Puiestee 29
10415 Talinn, Estonia

Helsinki | Finland
Finland’s national open air museum was established, like those of other Scandinavian countries, in the period of Romantic nationalism before the First World War, at a time when Finland formed part of the Russian Empire. It was founded in 1909 on Seurasaari island, close to the centre of Helsinki by ...

Seurasaari Open Air Museum
00250 Helsinki, Finland

La Richardais | France
The pioneering Rance tidal power station near La Richardais is located on the estuary of the River Rance between Dinard and St Malo in Britanny. Construction began in July 1963 and it opened in November 1966. The dam, 163 m long, includes a lock measuring 65m X 13m which allows 20,000 vessels per ...

Rance tidal power station
Espace découvert EDF
Barrage de la Rance
35780 La Richardais, France

Merkwiller-Pechelbronn | France
The useful properties of the oils extracted from sands extraction in northern Alsace, in the present-day department of Bas-Rhin were recognised in the Middle Ages, and the oils were systematically extracted from the mid-eighteenth century until 1970. Mining began in 1745 under the direction of Louis ...

Petroleum Museum at Merkwiller-Pechelbronn
Musée du pétrole de Merkwiller-Pechelbronn Vosges de Nord Regional Natural Park
4 Rue d’École
67250 Merkwiller-Pechelbronn, France