Amish Factory Uses Pneumatics in Place of Electricity

(p. 219) The Amish also make a distinction between technology they have at work and technology they have at home. I remember an early visit to an Amish man who ran a woodworking shop near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. . . .
. . .
(p. 220) While the rest of his large workshop lacked electricity beyond that naked bulb, it did not lack power machines. The place was vibrating with an ear-cracking racket of power sanders, power saws, power planers, power drills, and so on. Everywhere I turned there were bearded men covered in sawdust pushing wood through screaming machines. This was not a circle of Renaissance craftsman hand-tooling masterpieces. This was a small-time factory cranking out wooden furniture with machine power. But where was the power coming from? Not from windmills.
Amos took me around to the back where a huge SUV-sized diesel generator sat. It was massive. In addition to a gas engine there was a very large tank, which, I learned, stored compressed air. The diesel engine burned petroleum fuel to drive the compressor that filled the reservoir with pressure. From the tank, a series of high-pressure pipes snaked off toward every corner of the factory. A hard rubber flexible hose connected each tool to a pipe. The entire shop ran on compressed air. Every piece of machinery was running on pneumatic power. Amos even showed me a pneumatic switch, which he could flick like a light switch to turn on some paint-drying fans running on air.
The Amish call this pneumatic system “Amish electricity.” At first, pneumatics were devised for Amish workshops, but air power was seen as so useful that it migrated to Amish households. In fact, there is an entire cottage industry in retrofitting tools and appliances to run on Amish electricity. The retrofitters buy a heavy-duty blender, say, and yank out the electrical motor. They then substitute an air-powered motor of appropriate size, add pneumatic connectors, and bingo, your Amish mom now has a blender in her electricity-less kitchen. You can get a pneumatic sewing machine and a pneumatic washer/dryer (with propane heat). In a display of pure steam-punk (air-punk?) nerdiness, Amish hackers try to outdo one another in building pneumatic versions of electrified contraptions. Their mechanical skill is quite impressive, particularly since none went to school beyond the eighth grade. They (p. 221) love to show off their geekiest hacks. And every tinkerer I met claimed that pneumatics were superior to electrical devices because air was more powerful and durable, outlasting motors that burned out after a few years of hard labor. I don’t know if this claim of superiority is true or merely a justification, but it was a constant refrain.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *