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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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