Hand-powered devices have been used for millennia. However, during the last quarter of the 19th century a radically improved generation of tools appeared.
These tools took advantage of modern mass production machinery and processes (like interchangeable parts) and an increased availability in superior material (metal instead of wood).
One of the outcomes included an array of new drilling machines. These human-powered tools were not only a vast improvement over those that came before them, they also had many advantages in comparison to the power drills that we use today.
Our fascination with sophisticated technology lies at the core of many of our present-day problems. Yet, it need not be. By definition, technical virtuosity doesn't need to result in yet another electronic gadget or an even faster accelerating sports car. It can also lead to stunning yet completely harmless artefacts called "automata".
These are mostly hand-cranked machines that can be extremely complex, often with the only purpose of astonishing the spectator. Automata have been built for more than 2,000 years, but contemporary artists have elevated the craft to a higher level. Aside from their emotional value, automata offer a glimpse of a future, post-oil technology.
For almost every electronic device or oil driven machine there used to be a low-tech alternative that was powered by human muscles, water or wind. The Museum of Old Techniques aims to collect and study these historical alternatives to modern day machinery. Why, you may ask?
To quote the Museum: "Evolution doesn't necessarily mean progress, what we consider to be primitive solutions are often not primitive at all". We could not have said it better ourselves. The website of the MOT contains, among other things, some 2,000 simple drawings of hand tools (ordered by shape, and by profession) and a collection of illustrated trade catalogues (up until 1950, in French).
A somewhat related publication is Edward H. Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary (1881) : an almost 3,000 page encyclopedia with descriptions and illustrations of tools, instruments, machines, processes and engineering dating from the 19th century. You need to download a plugin to see the scans.
Fast and complicated calculations are a product of fossil fuels.
Multiplying and dividing numbers was not always that easy. Before the arrival of cheap electronic pocket calculators and computers in the 1970s, people relied on an array of low-tech means and machines to calculate taxes, profits or the properties of engineering parts.
Being an obsolete technology now, some of these 19th and 20th century calculators are surprisingly sophisticated and fashionable. Moreover, most are powered by a crank, which makes these gadgets "green". Today's pocket calculators are no power hogs, either. The thing is that computers took over most calculating jobs from calculators, and a large supercomputer consumes as much energy as a convoy of trucks.
What do we do with all that calculation power? We build fast cars, giant jumbo jets and worldwide information highways, all of which, in their turn, raise energy consumption. We also construct opaque financial products, rickety electronic voting systems and contradictory global warming scenarios. Mechanical calculators may be an inferior technology, but they had the benefit of keeping things on this planet relatively simple. A brief overview of the most remarkable models.
The human body can deliver enough power to drive computers, television sets and washing machines – but it does go hand in hand with lots of sweat.
Eco-tech boffins dream of self-sufficient gadgets: mobile phones fed by solar energy, heartbeat-powered music players. However, the potential of these energy sources is much too small. Handles, cranks and biking machines on the other hand, do have a promise to be a powerful energy source. Swinging a crank for fifteen minutes is enough to power a mobile phone. Less than an hour of pedalling a bike can power larger machines. The only thing missing is a remedy for laziness.
How to downsize a transport network: the Chinese wheelbarrow For being such a seemingly ordinary vehicle, the wheelbarrow has a surprisingly exciting history. This is especially true in the East, where it became a universal means of transportation for both passengers and goods, even over long distances.
Firewood in the Fuel Tank: Wood Gas Vehicles Wood gas cars are a not-so-elegant but surprisingly efficient and ecological alternative to their petrol (gasoline) cousins, whilst their range is comparable to that of electric cars.
How to make everything ourselves: open modular hardware Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials. The parts of an obsolete generation of products can be used to design the next generation, or something completely different.
Power from the Tap
Power from the Tap: Water Motors Just before the arrival of electricity at the end of the 19th century, miniature water turbines were connected to the tap and could power any machine that is now driven by electricity.