Ropes and knots are among the most ancient and useful technologies ever developed by man, predating the wheel, the axe and probably also the use of fire. Today, they are fast on their way to become an obsolete technology.
The sheer number and diversity of knots that was once in use would be bewildering to the modern city-dweller. About 4,000 different knots are described, ranging from the very simple to the extremely complex.
Not so long ago, each profession or trade had adopted the knots best suited to its requirements, and knotting was part of their daily lives. There are some good knotting reference books available online, and all of them are older than most of us.
Electric motors and batteries have improved substantially over the past one hundred years, but today's much hyped electric cars have a range that is - at best - comparable to that of their predecessors at the beginning of the 20th century. Weight, comfort, speed and performance have eaten up any real progress. We don't need better batteries, we need better cars.
From the earliest civilisations right up to the start of the Industrial Revolution, humans used sheer muscle power, organisation skills and ingenious mechanics to lift weights that would be impossible to handle by most power cranes in operation today.
During the Second World War, almost every motorised vehicle in continental Europe was converted to use firewood. Wood gas cars (also known as producer 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. Rising fuel prices and global warming have caused renewed interest in this almost-forgotten technology: worldwide, dozens of handymen drive around in their home-made woodmobiles.
For many centuries, canal boats were propelled by men, horses or mules on the towpath beside the water. Before diesel power took over, engineers developed several interesting methods powered by electricity: trolleyboats, floating funiculars and electric mules. Many of these ecological solutions could be applied today instead of diesel engines. Because of the very low energy requirements, they could easily be powered by renewable energy, generated on the spot by water turbines located at sluices. One trolleyboat line is still in use.
About a year ago we presented a medieval building technique that could save large amounts of brick and thus embodied energy in construction: timbrel vaulting. Turns out that there is also a 19th century brick and tile production technique that is surprisingly energy efficient: the Hoffmann kiln, a giant version of the medieval oven stove.
In the 1930s and 1940s, decades after steam engines had made wind power obsolete, Dutch researchers obstinately kept improving the – already very sophisticated – traditional windmill. The results were spectacular, and there is no doubt that today an army of ecogeeks could improve them even further. Would it make sense to revive the industrial windmill and again convert kinetic energy directly into mechanical energy?
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.