Until about 1712, humankind depended largely on human and animal exertion for work. There was the occasional water-power dam and, in parts of the world, windmills, but these were specifically location- dependent. Thomas Newcomen freed work from location and muscle, with the invention of his atmospheric steam engine around 1712. There had been precursors to this invention, but Newcomen is credited with the first practical design.
This was only 300 years ago, a mere dash in time when compared to all of human history. These engines were used to dewater mines. Mines were the womb of many early industrial inventions, for at the time, mines were the focal point of non-agricultural activities. Mines, for instance, were the developing launching pads for what later became the railroad track and railroad carriage system.
Newcomen's Engine did not produce a continuous rotating force. It was a rocker arm assembly designed to duplicate the action produced by a human operating a hand pump in a water well, something you may have seen in an agricultural museum or on your grandparents' farm.
James Watt's steam engine, developed between 1763 and 1781, was the first practical steam engine producing rotating power and was a tremendous energy saver, compared to the Newcomen and other early designs. Matthew Boulton was also instrumental in the creative design evolution at this point and often the engines were called Boulton and Watt engines.
Due to their size and number of necessary attendants, steam engines were located in a central location in the developing design of factories and transmitted their power by line shafts to the points of use.
This style of power transmission was often used and still exists to this day.
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The old Westvaco Mill at Wickliffe, Kentucky (circa 1970) had several steam turbines (not piston style engines) in its design. This mill has been recently rechristened the Phoenix Mill by its new owners. The machine was driven by a line shaft with a turbine, as were the vacuum and fan pumps. This unusual configuration at this late date was an economical one--the mill drew electrical power from the Tennessee Valley Authority at a low price; hence installing electrical generation capacity was not economically justified. What to do with high pressure steam under these economic conditions? Run it through steam turbines scattered throughout the mill. In 1984, we removed the line shaft and installed sectional DC drives, state of the art for the time.
The electric motor freed paper mills and other factories from line shafts. While DC (direct current) motors came first, the AC (alternating current) motor was largely the brainchild of Nikola Tesla. Practical versions came into widespread use just over one hundred years ago. In the early days, there were no standards for voltage or frequency in AC systems, as there was no widespread power grid. Paper mills with a long history (such as the one at Covington, Virginia, also a former Westvaco Mill, now part of WestRock) had motors wound to match the frequency and voltage they used and as recently as the early 1980's was still requiring specially produced motors because of the heritage of their electrical systems. I do not know their situation today; if anyone does and has the permission to let us know, please respond at the bottom of this column.
So, look at the complexity of our power and control systems today. Recognize the engineering expertise, the standards development and all the myriad details that go into a modern papermill energy and control system. Yet, for those early in their careers, I hope this little column will offer an appreciation for how quickly we have come from the invention of the steam engine (300 years) and the practical electric motor (100 years) to the point we are today, efficiently harnessing energy and controlling the emissions generated by its production.
For safety this week, energy sources are fraught with danger. Training and an appreciation for the power generated is necessary for continued safety.
Be safe and we will talk next week.
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