By David Garnett
Major technologies are embedded in archaeological epochs. Stone Age tools were gradually abandoned once our ancestors entered the Bronze Age and functional bronze artefacts were themselves largely replaced by other metal products in the Age of Iron. In shorter time periods, changing patterns in production and consumption have tended to be associated with advances in energy technology rather than with developments in the use of materials. Gas mantle manufacture replaced candle making in the nineteenth century and, with the evolving use of electrical power in the twentieth century, gas mantle manufacturing itself became a marginal activity (along with the production of an enormous range of manual and clockwork devices). When major discoveries and inventions occur, the established technology becomes more or less obsolete: or so it is usually argued.
In developed economies in recent years, candle making has experienced a resurgence. The output of this reinvigorated industry has, of course, a different focus than that of its historical predecessor. Most people purchasing candles these days are seeking to generate smell rather than light. Candles have become luxury gift items for scenting the bathroom rather than being basic domestic consumables lighting all living rooms. It may well be that the current shift towards digital communications will result in a similar shift in our uses for printed paper. The next generation of readers may see printed books, journals and newspapers as occupying a niche corner of the ‘heritage landscape’ rather than as playing a central part in educational, commercial and leisure communications.
One strong characteristic of technological progress is engineering’s ability to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of existing useful artefacts. Motor vehicles, refrigerators, televisions, computers, etc. have been with us some time. Although they have maintained their basic technological integrity, their functionality has been, and continues to be, transformed by engineering and design advancements. We don’t only invent new things (exogenous improvements) – we discover new and better ways of producing old things (endogenous improvements).
Throughout history, those with personal pecuniary concerns or large capital investment interests in existing manufacturing arrangements have sometimes resisted the introduction of radically new ways of producing goods. Perhaps most famously, in the early nineteenth century, skilled textile workers in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire responded to the threat to their livelihoods and communities by smashing up the new automated machines that were replacing their established ‘cottage’ spinning and weaving production methods. It is sometimes argued that in our own time, large-scale corporate interests have slowed down the introduction of developments in such areas as electric cars, wind power generation and new house-building methods.
Where ‘luddite’ resistance to certain technological changes occur, they are usually driven by vested interests. Other forms of resistance to change are more unconsciously psychological than consciously economic.
Looking back to old technologies to see whether new modern methods can be applied to them is seen, in the developed world at least, to be non-progressive and a backward step. Up-graded traditional technologies have been applied with much success in developing economies where twenty-first century technologies are seen to be difficult, impossible or inappropriate. Indeed the term ‘appropriate technology’ is now an established term that is applied to technical developments that are judged to be suited to local social and economic conditions.
In the developed world, if past inventions are seen to have commercial potential at all, it is in terms of their contributions to the ‘heritage industry’. There is an instinctive unwillingness to consider the past as a source of inspiration for the present and a disinclination to reapply old ideas to contemporary needs. This resistance to reinventing past technologies may well be causing us to miss opportunities to provide modern sustainable solutions to current problems.
If we could reconceive existing clockwork technology in the light of modern materials, engineering techniques, needs and lifestyles, some minor industrial revolution might be possible. Our ancestors invested much time, money, effort and talent in producing clockwork machines that provided exceedingly accurate timepieces and intriguingly elaborate appliances and toys. Our failure to build on this established technology is surprising.
Not all old ideas are worthy of modern investment – but those that have already been developed to high levels of sophistication and shown to have improved lives in the past, might have the potential to enhance the wellbeing of present and future generations. Clockwork technology has that potential.
The concept of clockwork technology is disarmingly simply: it has two key design elements.
1. Some sort of spring to store and release energy.
2. A system of cams, cogs and gears to transmit the energy to achieve some sort of function.
To date, a spring’s energy storage potential is mostly limited to small-scale, low-energy uses such as traditional clocks and watches, windup radios and torches. For a ‘wind-up’ technology to have a significant impact on modern life four things are required: (1) technological developments; (2) a commitment to invest; (3) design applications that bring together (1) and (2) in ways that achieve societal objectives, and (4) the universalization of the new technology.
(1) Technological developments
The key constraining limitation of traditional metal spring technology is its inability to store enough energy to carry out a reasonable range of work over an extended period. To have a transformational effect on modern life, the powers of traditional springs need to be massively multiplied. With this objective in mind, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are exploring the possibility of using molecular-scale nanotubes of pure carbon to create miniature springs that can be bundled together to create a larger high-density compound spring capable of powering relatively large devices. [ refer MIT’s newsroom ].
(2) A commitment to Invest
We live in a world of movement. In the whole of human history there has never been a time when people have travelled such distances on a regular basis. According to The Information Centre For and About The Global Auto Industry (Ward’s Auto), the number of cars on the world’s roads surpassed one billion in 2010. It is estimated that there are over 100 million bicycles in the US alone and well over a billion in the world (Will Dennis, Co-founder Hollerback). In 2010 it was estimated that people living in the developed world took between 5,000 and 10,000 walking steps a day as part of their normal routines (with the US being the most sedentary) . If this everyday social movement could be harvested, it would provide an astonishing volume of cheap and sustainable energy.
Piezoelectricity is the term given to electrical energy that is produced from mechanical pressure (including motions such as driving over pressure points or walking on especially engineered sensor pads). When pressure is applied to an object, a negative charge is produced on the expanded side and a positive charge on the compressed side. Once the pressure is relieved, electrical current flows across the material. Piezo materials (usually in the form of crystals or ceramics) can be used to capture this electrical discharge. To be of use, the charge needs to be captured and stored so that it can be released when needed.
Early research at MIT aimed at harvesting ‘human motion’, is looking at the possibility of installing piezoelectric flooring in urban areas where there is a constant and heavy footfall such as shopping centres, railway stations and tourist facilities. This idea of “crowd farming” as it is being termed, is based on the notion of there being a critical point at which piezoelectric generation becomes viable. It is estimated (MIT) that one footstep will provide enough energy to light a single 60 watt bulb for just over a second. It could be possible that approximately 28,500 footsteps could power a train for one second (Christian Science Monitor).
Elsewhere (e.g. Israeli University) engineers are exploring the potential for generating piezoelectricity from moving vehicles by means of Piezo Electric Generators (IPEG™) embedded in roads, railways and runways. It is hoped that eventually energy will be harvested from weight, motion, vibration and temperature changes from within urban transport structures. Israeli University’s spin-out company Innowattech is already developing the commercial application of this pioneering technology. A prototype road system is expected to produce up to 400 kilowatts from a 1-kilometre stretch of dual carriageway.
If this technology is adopted, it is probable that its initial introduction will occur in a municipal context and be introduced into new local transport investments, including major infrastructure refurbishment projects. This means that the potential energy of busy roads, railroads and runways near population centres might be converted into electrical energy that can run nearby public facilities such as street lighting, or fed back into the grid.
The question then arises – if we harnessed nanotube and piezoelectric technologies to ‘crowd farming’ and transport networks could we generate enough energy to create a ‘clockwork revolution’ that would go some way to providing sustainable energy on an industrial scale for our children and their descendants?
(3) Designing a clockwork society
The principles of piezoelectricity have been understood since the 19th century but a number of things combined to discourage its development. Foremost amongst these inhibiting factors were the limitations of traditional spring capacities to store and release any generated energy and the general availability of relatively cheap fossil fuels throughout the 20th century. It might be argued that today things are now in place for piezoelectricity’s eventual development and use.
The emerging new technologies described above are taking place at a time when there exists both an understanding of the non-renewable nature of fossil fuels and increasing concerns about the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. These issues have raised the spectre of continuously rising energy prices coupled with damaging changes to the world’s climate. These concerns have, in turn, raised the profile of alternative sources of energy and produced an economic and political mood that is responsive to new ways of thinking about energy production and distribution.
As indicated above, the applications of the new technologies being discussed in this paper are most likely to be applied, initially at least, in local settings and in the form of specific (and limited) corporate or municipal investment projects. For a ‘technological revolution’ to take place, we would need to universalise the use of the new technology and use it in day-to-day employment and domestic settings.
(4) Universalising the technology
The principle of using ‘people motion’ to wind up springs is already well established in watch technology. Automatic watches operate by winding themselves by means of an oscillating or rotating weight inside the instrument. The weight moves while the watch is worn and this motion turns a winding mechanism inside the timepiece that energises the mainspring. If this principle of capturing energy could be universalised so that individual people, vehicles, garden and roof-top wind turbines, etc. could used to generate a storable charge, we would not only have created a new (and boundless) source of clean and renewable electricity, but also a new form of society that would open up opportunities for both developed and developing economies to enhance living standards in affordable ways and with limited damage to the local and global environments.
To move to this vision of a ‘modern clockwork society’ would involve the incorporation of the new technologies into a form of daily living that automatically captured the micro-generations produced by walking the dog, vacuuming the carpet, driving to work, being at work, etc. The overarching enabling design principles are straightforward.
• The use of efficient mini plug-ins (MPIs) in the form of nanotube springs attached to moving objects (arms, legs, wheels, roof windmills,, etc.).
• The incorporation of mini sockets to receive the MPIs.
• The development of a control panel to:
o transfer the energy generated by the MPIs to a larger nanotube mainspring;
o transfer accumulated energy stored in the mainspring to household tasks (operating appliances, generating light, etc.);
o measure and record and analyse the flows of generated energy.
The enabling design
The design concept is simple but will require imaginative design and a great deal of research and development funding and effort (see Appendix 1).
Mini plug-ins (MPIs) from bicycles, cars, pedometers, etc. capture energy from everyday motion that is then transferred to a storage mainspring. The stored energy is then drawn down when required (see Appendix 1).
Is clockwork technology dead or alive?
Further reading and information