Wood gas vehicles : firewood in the fuel tank 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.
Few people in the western world realize that they have an extra power source available in their household, workshop or factory: tap water. Just before the arrival of electricity at the end of the nineteenth century, water motors were widely used in Europe and America. These miniature water turbines were connected to the tap and could power any machine that is now driven by electricity.
Wind powered factories The Netherlands had 5 times more windmills in 1850 than it has wind turbines today. One of the most spectacular developments of industrial wind power technology occurred in the Zaan district, a region situated just above Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
Human powered cranes and lifting devices 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.
The mechanical transmission of power (1): Stangenkunst From the 1500s onwards, engineers developed mechanical power transmission and distribution technologies, called "Stangenkunsten", that became ever more sophisticated. Networks of pivoted, wooden field rods conveyed power from water wheels in the valleys to mining machinery up the mountains over distances of up to 4 km, operating pumps and bellows, hoisting ores, and transporting miners up and down shafts.
The mechanical transmission of power (2): Jerker line systems From the 1860s to 1940s, many oil wells were pumped by a technology that originates in a sixteenth-century power transmission system used in the mining industry. One engine operated up to 45 pumps in different locations, each up to a mile away. Power was transmitted by means of wooden rods or steel cables that moved back and forth, snaking through the landscape.
The mechanical transmission of power (3): Endless rope drives You don't need electricity to send or receive power quickly. In the second half of the nineteenth century, we commonly used fast-moving ropes. These wire rope transmissions were more efficient than electricity for distances up to 5 kilometres. Even today, a nineteenth-century rope drive would be more efficient than electricity over relatively short distances. If we used modern materials for making ropes and pulleys, we could further improve this forgotten method.
Water powered cable trains Cable trains (or funiculars) are one of the most energy-efficient modes of transport out there. Many historical systems used this efficiency and took it one step further with systems exclusively powered by water and gravity.
Email in the 18th century : the optical telegraph More than 200 years ago it was already possible to send messages throughout Europe and America at the speed of an aeroplane – wireless and without need for electricity.
Burning the bones of the earth: lime kilns For at least 7,000 years humans created lime in kilns, as they might have hardened pottery or smelted ore, and used the material for dozens of purposes now largely replaced by fossil-fuel by-products – perhaps most commonly to create mortar for construction. British and Irish farmers, though, found it most important to neutralise acid soils and multiply crop production.
Rings of fire - Hoffmann kilns A 19th century brick and tile production technique that is surprisingly energy efficient: the Hoffmann kiln, a giant version of the medieval oven stove.
The status quo of electric cars 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.
Boat mills: water powered, floating factories The waterwheel was seen as the most important power source in the world, from the Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century. When smaller streams became saturated, medieval engineers turned their attention to larger rivers, eventually leading to the development of the hydropower dams that still exist today. Lesser known are the intermediate steps toward that technology: boat mills, bridge mills and hanging mills.
Aerial Ropeways: automatic cargo transport for a bargain These days, we use them almost exclusively to transport skiers and snowboarders up snow slopes, but before the 1940s, aerial ropeways were a common means of cargo transport, not only in mountainous regions but also on flat terrain, with large-scale systems already built during the Middle Ages. Cargo tramways can be fully or partly powered by gravity, and some deliver excess power that can be utilized to generate electricity or to drive cranes or machinery in nearby factories. Some innovative systems have been constructed in recent years.
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. The Chinese wheelbarrow - which was driven by human labour, beasts of burden and wind power - was of a different design than its European counterpart. By placing a large wheel in the middle of the vehicle instead of a smaller wheel in front, one could easily carry three to six times as much weight than if using a European wheelbarrow.
A steam powered, wooden submarine : the Ictíneo Few Victorian inventions have the grace and charm of the Ictíneo, the series of submarines built by Narcís Monturiol i Estarrol in the nineteenth century. The Ictíneo II was the first combustion engine driven submarine ever, pioneering concepts that were only rivalled in the 1940s.
Download, print, fold, paste Paper cut-outs have a long history, but thanks to the internet they are making a comeback. There are tonnes of paper models to find – many of them are downloadable for free.
Cargo ships, then and now : which one is fastest?
Life before television Before the birth of modern multimedia, innovative low-tech devices delivered amazing effects and fulfilled almost the same role that television, cinema and media players do today. Some features of these even modern multimedia does not match.
Ever since the arrival of fossil fuels and electricity, human powered tools and machines have been viewed as an obsolete technology. This makes it easy to forget that there has been a great deal of progress in their design, largely improving their productivity. The most efficient mechanism to harvest human energy appeared in the late 19th century: pedalling. Stationary pedal powered machines went through a boom at the turn of the 20th century, but the arrival of cheap electricity and fossil fuels abruptly stopped all further development.
Computing without electricity 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.
Hand powered drilling tools and machines Hand-powered devices have been used for millennia, but during the last quarter of the 19th century a radically improved generation of tools appeared, taking advantage of modern mass production machinery and processes (like interchangeable parts) and an increased availability in superior material (metal instead of wood).
Satellite navigation in the 18th century Celestial navigation may sound a little outdated, but this system was perfected to such an extent that in the second half of the eighteenth century it was almost as accurate as the present-day GPS. Moreover, it was much more robust.
The Citroen 2CV : cleantech from the 1940s In spite of all the high-tech that has been squeezed into cars since then, the 2CV from 1949 is still more energy efficient than the smallest model of the French car designer today. Why?
Electric road trains German engineer Max Schiemann was among the first engineers to develop a commercial trolleybus system for passengers at the turn of the 20th century. He also created some unique cargo systems.
Reinventing the wheel The Museum of RetroTechnology has an amazing collection of pictures and drawings of motorized monowheels. These one-wheeled vehicles (the driver was placed inside the wheel) evolved from pedal-powered monocycles at the end of the 19th century. They became sort of a wet dream for boffins during the first decennia of the 20th century.
Tiles as a substitute for steel The craftsmanship associated with timbrel vaulting has long vanished, but the achievements are still with us today.
Truckloads of harddisks Imagine you put a portable hard disk of 500 gigabytes in your backpack and start walking. In which cases are you faster than your internet connection?
Moonlight towers The arc lamp - the first electric light and the predecessor of Edison’s incandescent light bulb - was extremely bright and much more energy efficient than other lighting technologies from those times. The lamps were too strong for indoor use, but they were regarded as the future of municipal lighting. Especially in the United States, many cities and towns were illuminated as if they were immense sports stadiums.
Trolley canal boats 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.
When rich women built houses How did ladies spend their time when married to extremely rich men in an era before television, speed-dating and summer festivals?
Life without airplanes: from London to New York in 3 days and 12 hours Before mass air travel took off in the 1960s, people crossed the globe in majestic passenger ships. Reintroducing ocean liners would be more than a nostalgic move: it could be a much more energy efficient (yet slower) way to travel.
Bring back the horses Reintroducing horses in city traffic would be a bad idea - cars might be noisy, dangerous and polluting, but mounts are even worse. In agriculture, however, animal power would bring surprisingly large environmental profits. Replacing tractors with real horse power could be the revolution that agriculture needs.
Photoshop in the early 20th century At the beginning of the 20th century some clever photographers specialized in Photoshop before the term existed, faking postcards from mainly rural communities.
The Kalakala The first streamlined ferry in the world.
The digital oubliette Chances are slim your children will be able to enjoy the family photo album when they grow up.
Electric generators from the 1800s a gallery of illustrations