The Mechanical Transmission of Power
February 2, 2013 10:54 AM   Subscribe

Engineering question: say you only had one generator with multiple places that needed power in real time. How to get power to them? Caveat: do it mechanically with no electricity. Low Tech Magazine brings you the Jerker Line System and the Stangenkunst, for all your post-apocalyptic / steam punk power distribution needs. Some are still in operation: Jerkerline Field wheel near Oil Springs Ontario (video), and Oklahoma (video).
posted by stbalbach (21 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Huh. I'm pretty sure I saw that jerkerline field wheel on a field trip in grade school.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:19 AM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Surely for mechanical power generation, a wind turbine would be more effective in places where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain?
posted by maryr at 11:30 AM on February 2, 2013

As soon as I saw the words "mechanical" and "Ontario", I thought "I'll bet Matthias Wandel [previously: 1, 2, 3, 4] had something to do with this!". And yes, there he is in the photo credits ...
posted by scruss at 11:34 AM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is way cool. If I were I prepper, I'd take notes on constructing one of these.
posted by shoesietart at 12:00 PM on February 2, 2013

I'd solve this problem with a pump, long pipes and water towers. It can't be any less efficient those enormously long linkages and would be a lot easier to maintain.
posted by DU at 12:03 PM on February 2, 2013

Enormously long metal or wood linkages seem to me easier to acquire/build and maintain than enormously long pipes filled with high pressure water.
posted by notyou at 12:14 PM on February 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks for posting - very interesting stuff.

I must admit my first thought was of factories: belt driven equipment. When your drive mechanism isn't exposed to the nasty outside, belts do the job just fine.

I'm not so sure that a pump chain would work very well. You'd need a lot of pumps and each one has a relatively complex mechanism that will wear over time. Maintenance of your system would be difficult work for a skilled person and with one pump down the whole system would fail. The efficiency of the system might not be that impressive either - you'd be loosing energy to friction in each pump, loosing water through evaporation and leaks.

Plus, making a decent water pump with 16th century technology is harder than you may think.

Those stangenkunst wouldn't be perfect, but wouldn't be awful and would be a lot lower maintenance and cheaper to set up.

(On preview - if you're using pressurised pipes, you've got other problems, not least that if you're a roman engineer or a 16th century engineer, pressurised pipes are not easy to work with).
posted by YAMWAK at 12:19 PM on February 2, 2013

Thanks for posting, these Jerker lines seemto me to be like a mechanical archaeopteryx - (a missing link that died out because it was a bit crap.)

Scruss, I've spent the last 30 minutes looking at Matthias Wandels wonderful site, thanks for the link.
posted by Dr Ew at 12:35 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Enormously long metal or wood linkages seem to me easier to acquire/build and maintain than enormously long pipes filled with high pressure water.

Pipes are very efficient at maintaining pressure. Metal is great in tension, which is the only force the pressure puts on a cylindrical pipe.

That might not be a great 16th century solution (due to difficulty in making metal pipe, especially without a seam, which was basically impossible for the Romans [thus open aqueducts]). But it would be just dandy for 1860-1940, as in the link.
posted by DU at 12:42 PM on February 2, 2013

The Chinese wheelbarrow.

The Timbrel vault.

Aerial Ropeways of the Middle Ages.

Computing without electricity. (My dad had one of those mechanical calculators!)

That's just at first glance. This site is the best of the web.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:56 PM on February 2, 2013 [12 favorites]

DU's suggestion of pumping water brought to mind the problems that engineers had with keeping the fountains in the gardens of Versailles fed with water.

Water transmission technology certainly got a lot better as time went on and as Dr Ew says, Jerker lines got left behind. Large scale water pumping for powering the mines would work fine in more recent centuries, but the stangenkunst were known, tried, tested, reliable and cheap. I can certainly see why they were kept on for so long.
posted by YAMWAK at 12:57 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came here to say Best of the Web! too. I never cease to be amazed how inventive people were, within the bounds of their technology, and how much patience could be applied to a problem. We don't have time for that kind of thing these days.
posted by sneebler at 1:16 PM on February 2, 2013

Just because I think it's intresting, 'stangenkunst' can be translated as 'by art of the pole/bar'. I mean you could also translate it as 'pole art' but c'mon - back when they started this art was paintings of rich guys/religious folk - so kunst isn't meant art 'art' but art 'manner of'.

Also, without reading the really great description, those videos are kind of wonderfully nonsensical.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:44 PM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

t can't be any less efficient those enormously long linkages and would be a lot easier to maintain.

False on both counts. Fluid power transmission is very inefficient - the pipe creates friction against the fluid along its whole length. And have you ever seen what pumps looked like before they invented rubber? lubricating a bearing is way easier than repacking a leather gland every month.

Great post! I collect this sort of historical engineering tricks, but I hadn't seen this.
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:08 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

A+, will share with my engineer friends
posted by ArgentCorvid at 3:00 PM on February 2, 2013

I am always reminding the engineering students I work with that they should be prepared to look at the past. Our ancestors were as smart as we are, and they had good ideas, too, and just because something was superseded, doesn't mean that it can't be useful again, in a a different setting.

It's sort of the flipside to "the ancient Egyptians dis not need UFOs or psychic powers to build the pyramids because they weren't idiots."
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:33 PM on February 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm always willing to marvel at how ingenious our ancestors could be. If it weren't for the fact that I'd die horribly, I'd be interested in seeing what we could do without our technological infrastructure.
posted by happyroach at 3:43 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Chinese wheel barrows are amazing: Sail powered wheel barrow.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 4:14 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The whole No Tech/Low Tech site is amazing. I feel like a kid with a quiet holiday afternoon and the latest Whole Earth Catalog.
posted by sneebler at 4:23 PM on February 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

My step-mom's aunt has one of these jerker line systems on her small oil field near Titusville, PA. We visited there about fifteen years ago and it struck me as rather ingenious how well it worked. She had about a dozen wells, each named after a different Catholic Saint. I think the central hub thing had been converted to an electric motor by then, but everything else was mostly original and rusty, except for some replacement parts, even though by then it was many decades old. As I understand it, she only barely broke even with her field, but she kept it around because it was her late husband's pride and joy.

What I remember most about the contraption was the sound. You'd hear, in somewhat regular rhythm, scrapes, clangs, knocks, chuffs, squeaks, squeals and clunks, with the whirr of the central motor right behind it.

I described the system to a professor of mine, but I don't think he believed me that such a thing still exists.
posted by The Potate at 12:33 AM on February 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

Fascinating! What a great post.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:59 AM on February 3, 2013

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