Our Mechanical World

Our Mechanical World

Andrew Prestridge | September 4, 2020

Our Mechanical World...

...stands on the shoulders of the ancient navigators, locksmiths, clockmakers, and millwrights. While many of their relics and inventions have survived the test of time, many more are probably lost. Humans have been extremely clever for thousands of years, most of which predates our modern ability to write, record, document, photograph, and patent.

These early innovators did their work to solve problems, improve their lives, fully utilize their capabilities - and just because they could. We know these traits exist today, in people that are more sharing and more open than ever in our connected world. We've done our best to research and compile a long history of gears and mechanical systems kept up to date

Rendition of what the South-Pointing Chariot may have looked like. Science Museum of London.

The Chinese claim to have had gears mentioned in their archives as far back as 5,000 years ago, but no relic exists to prove the claim; it stands only as a legend. The ancient geared device was a South Pointing Chariot – a device to aid in navigation. The instrument always pointed South by connecting to the wheels of a chariot through a differential geartrain

Geographers and Astronomers

Eratosthenes and Archimedes were making instruments and documenting their work around 250BC. One such celestial calculator was the Antikythera Mechanism, which shows stunning craftsmanship, ability, and knowledge to predict eclipses decades in advance.

Most certainly this device was a close secret to kings and rulers, but the concepts and skill must have taken generations to develop. The name of the maker, or makers, remains unknown. The model of the heavens is expressed in a complex gear train. The relic is a great example of undocumented technology that is far more advanced from anything in the recorded history of that time.

Antikythera Mechanism – how it actually looks after recovery from a shipwreck

The Silk Road allowed trade and ideas to spread and travel long distances. Along with silk, technology and ideas could and did spread long distances.

The next time period from 200BC to 1500AD showed more widespread use of clocks, mills, water pumps and mechanisms with increasing complexity of gears and gear types. Da Vinci left drawings of many mechanisms and pushed the arts forward. Christopher Columbus navigated to North America by 1492. The quest for sea trade, and safer navigation, put instrument makers and astronomers front and center from 1500AD to 1773AD. This culminated in the Harrison clocks and the marine chronometer, and humanity’s first ability to reliably determine longitude.

Industrial Revolution – Changing Gears

The United States was new in 1776 and the Industrial Revolution moved small gears from clocks into mills, steam engines and many new machines. Textiles played an important part in the expansion with looms and sewing machines. Key names in the period up to 1900 include Henry Maudslay, Joseph Whitworth, Christian Schiele, William Gleason, George Grant, Edwin Fellows, Herman Pfauter, and Max Maag. In their quest to perfect gear types and the machines to make them, these were the namesakes of numerous companies and countless pieces of equipment still in operation today. As technology improved, the prime movers changed from water and wind to steam, diesel, and the internal combustion engines. By 1901 more gears than ever were needed to keep up with the demand from Henry Ford and the dawning automotive industry.

Gears in mesh, in a machine to make gears

Although gears are everywhere, their place in machinery is almost always buried deep within a gearbox – out of sight. Whether slow or fast, open gearing is hazardous near humans. So even if they do not require a gearbox, industrial gears are usually shrouded behind covers and enclosures. But while they may not always be visible, we have all benefitted by the life gears have enabled.

Gears and Grounds

Follow along as the Gears & Grounds newsletter rediscovers the history and manufacture of all types of gears. The last chapter in gearing is not complete and there is plenty of room for innovation as our understanding, manufacturing, and applications of gears continues to grow and improve.

Know more, do more.



Leave a comment