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Homebuilt gas powered ice cutter to make ice for non-electric icebox.

Kevin Kelly wrote an essay about the Amish’s relationship with technology, which is really quite different and much more interesting than many people think.

The Amish have the undeserved reputation of being luddites, of people who refuse to employ new technology. It’s well know the strictest of them don’t use electricity, or automobiles, but rather farm with manual tools and ride in a horse and buggy. In any debate about the merits of embracing new technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative of refusal. Yet Amish lives are anything but anti-technological. In fact on my several visits with them, I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers and surprisingly pro technology.

Kevin visited some Amish and wrote about their pneumatic system:

The boss, Amos (not his real name: the Amish prefer not to call attention to themselves), takes me around to the back where a huge dump-truck-sized diesel generator sits. It’s massive. In addition to a gas engine there is a very large tank, which I learn, stores compressed air. The diesel engine burns fuel to drive the compressor that fills the reservoir with pressure. From the tank a series of high-pressure pipes snake off toward every corner of the factory. A hard rubber flexible hose connects each tool to a pipe. The entire shop runs on compressed air. Every piece of machine is running on pneumatic power. Amos even shows me a pneumatic switch, which you can flick like a light switch, to turn on some paint-drying fans.

The Amish call this pneumatic system “Amish electricity.” At first pneumatics were devised for Amish workshops, but it was seen as so useful that air-power migrated to Amish households. In fact there is an entire cottage industry in retrofitting tools and appliances to 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 electrical-less kitchen. You can get a pneumatic sewing machine, and a pneumatic washer/dryer (with propane heat). In a display of pure steam-punk nerdiness, Amish hackers try to outdo each other in building pneumatic versions of electrified contraptions. Their mechanical skill is quite impressive, particularly since none went beyond the 8th grade. They love to show off this air-punk geekiness. And every tinkerer claimed that pneumatics were superior to electrical devices because air was more powerful and durable, outlasting motors which burned out after a few years hard labor. I don’t know if this is true, or just justification, but it was a constant refrain.

Mark Frauenfelder

Mark Frauenfelder is the editor-in-chief of Make magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog.


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Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Yes, very cool. If you think about it, compressing air is the perfect thing to do with a wind mill. It’s much easier to store air than electrons. 73 de Tom ABNZ

  2. AnthonyIac says:

    Ya’ know, I think they make those. You can buy ‘em at Home Depot…

  3. SKR says:

    Sorry to be pedantic, but having grown up in rural Ohio near “Amish Country” the less strict Amish were called Mennonites. They would use machines like cars, and probably these air powered tools, but the strict Amish that we knew would never even consider such things. But that was 20 years ago, maybe things have changed.

  4. samurai1200 says:

    yeah, it seems like this group of pneumato-heads would more likely be mennonites… i mean, where do they get the diesel for their air compressor? make it, like biodiesel?

  5. Jetlag says:

    I can’t wait to see the pnuematic computer!

  6. engineer says:

    You really have to admire the faith of people who are unwilling to connect to a modern power grid but are willing to buy diesel oil from exxon-mobile and burn it in a giant diesel generator behind their barn. I guess their god just hates EPA regulations or something.

  7. paradox says:

    From what I recall, the Amish are derived from the Mennonites. And there are more varieties of Mennonites than you can shake a stick at- each community considers how technology effects core community values (like telephone usage versus face-to-face communication) and the elders decide what is acceptable in their communities. Amish or Mennonite, exceptions for technology are made- for example, an elderly farmer with no children may be granted the use of a tractor (versus horse and cart) to work his fields and families who have children who suffer from the “blue light” disease are granted exceptions for life-saving equipment.

  8. Bob D says:

    I talked to my buddy Sam (Samuel) today. He’s from an Amish family in Ohio somewhere near the border with PA. He’s a machinist and a friend so I felt comfortable asking him about “Amish Electricity”. He totally knew all about it, said he saw several wood shops using compressed air to run tools, etc. He stressed how noisy the shops were though. LOUD from all the compressed air tools running.

    That being said, I suspect any wood shop would be loud, but I know first hand the sound of pneumatic tools and how annoying it can be after a while. Either way, very cool stuff.

    -Bob

  9. Sean says:

    I can sort of testify to this. Where I live there are Hudderites (less strict than Amish, more strict than Mennonites) and I had the pleasure of visiting one of their farms.

    They made a truck which they could drive down the barn stalls. It would read a bar code or rfid tag and dispense the correct mixture of grains and feed for each individual stall as it went by.

    My jaw dropped when I saw this polished brand new hacked truck.

  10. Jack says:

    I suspect the entire point of this retro-tech is being able to moderate the entire means of production and use. In essence, these people are just making sure they control their technology and machines (as one would any tool) rather than the other way around (as some would argue television and related forms of media do, hence the need for “policing” devices such as the TV-B-Gone). They would most likely emphasize with Faber (from Fahrenheit 451), who made his own portable TV screen, but stressed making it small enough to block out with his hand.

    These high tech “luddites” simply follow that little blue Make slogan: “Technology on your time” as opposed to technology on the fast-paced, wasteful timetable of the world, where obsolescence is planned for and new versions are released constantly.

  11. Ben says:

    @paradox

    What is this ‘blue light’ disease you speak of? A google search didn’t turn up anything for me.

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