War in the West

The Pre-Industrial Sources of Power: Muscle Power

The first of the series by J. Kenneth Major, on the harnessing of human and animal sources of energy.

Today industry and the machines that run it are thought of as synonymous with pollution and depletion of the world's natural resources. Before the Industrial Revolution, and indeed during its early stages, men employed machines which neither caused pollution nor depleted finite natural resources. Wind, water, tide and muscle - both animal and human - provided sources of energy that are still available to man and are still used to power simple machines in many parts of the world today. In this special feature, edited for History Today by Professor Walter Minchinton, Head of the Department of Economics at Exeter University, the history of the way man used these resources of energy is discussed in four articles, and the question is raised in the context of the present energy crisis: can these resources be harnessed anew?

The muscle-power of both men and animals has been used to drive machines since Pharaonic times. The ways in which their efforts have been harnessed to machines fall conveniently into two categories. The first is through the application of their power to the vertical machine, the second to the horizontal machine. A typical example of the former is the notorious prison treadmill in which men worked in the inside rim of a large diameter wheel whose shaft then acted either as a windlass or as the crank to drive a simple machine that required reciprocating motion. A similar result was obtained by men or animals treading the outside rim of the wheel.

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