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article number 325
article date 03-18-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Work in Factories Gets a Breath of Fresh Air, 1880s
by Floyd Darrow, Brooklyn Polytechnic Preparatory Day School

From the 1924 book, A Popular History of American Invention.

BEFORE the simplest forms of life came into existence, air had been assisting in the architecture of this planet for countless centuries. For millions of years it had ceaselessly lashed the sea. Air-driven breakers, moving with the irresistible might of an invincible host, since time immemorial had battled with the towering rocks and sifting sands of the seashore.

They carved our coast-lines, even as a sculptor shapes his form of clay. If you wish to see a mighty monument to the work of moving air, visit the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. There you will find a vast area studded with tall columns of red sandstone, carved into fantastic shapes by air-driven sand.

The work of moving air has been of constant service to mankind. Even in this age of steam, ships are still driven by the wind, and in Holland grain is still ground by the windmill. What but air wafts inland the sea-born clouds that drop their moisture in gentle rains or fierce storms, thus watering the earth and feeding brook and river, pond and lake? Even the small boy owes something to moving air that bears his kite aloft.

The work of air is exhibited in nature, but the industrial applications of it are still young. And they are many. A vigorous youth, skilful as a magician and mighty as a giant, has leaped forth to lighten the world’s burdens and perform a multitude of useful tasks. We wonder how we did so long without him.

To many men at various times and places belongs the credit of harnessing the air to perform the world’s work. But, as always, certain giant figures tower above the mass. And such a giant was Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant.

The son of a Maine farmer, born toward the middle of the nineteenth century, and apprenticed to a shoemaker, Sturtevant had the vision to see a new way of pegging shoes and the genius to make his dream come true. This dream had nothing to do with air, but it paved the way to a new world and to vast achievement.

Into this youthful cobbler’s brain came the idea of a machine to peg shoes for him. First he had to invent a machine that would rapidly and skilfully convert logs of wood into pegs. “Impossible,” he was told. But Sturtevant did it. Very shortly this farmer’s lad, with no previous mechanical training, had constructed a model to illustrate his idea.

After months of patient labor he overcame every obstacle. His machine was perfected. It could take a barked log eighteen inches long, strip it into ribbons, much as a tape is unwound from a bobbin, and cut these ribbons into pegs, which could be driven into the sole of the shoe. It was an epoch-making invention, the first step toward placing shoe-manufacture upon a machine basis.



The small country village of Skowhegan, Maine, offered no opportunity to the young inventor, so he went to Boston. He arrived with seventy-five cents in his pocket, a model, a patent, and a head full of ideas.

His first task was to introduce his pegging-machine into the shoe-factories of New England, as well as a buffer for smoothing leather.

But very soon the workmen began to complain of the dust that the buffer threw into the air. To many men this would have been a mere trifle. Not so with Benjamin Sturtevant. If the dust bothered the men, it must be removed.

Immediately he invented a simple suction-fan, which drew away the obnoxious dust as fast as it flew from the buffing-wheel. Then and there were the vacuum-cleaner and a whole host of dust-removers born.

With this simple device Sturtevant had put air to work. He had opened a vast new field for the expansion of his genius. An ordinary man would have been satisfied with the accomplishment of his immediate purpose. But Sturtevant saw the tremendous possibilities in his new invention.

Were there not innumerable other industries, both in Europe and America, that suffered from dust or noxious gases .The application of scientific principles to the problem of ventilation was wholly unknown. Here was an opportunity wide as the world, and Sturtevant knew it.


So clearly did Sturtevant glimpse the future of this new field of achievement that he gave up entirely his pegging-machine business and determined to devote all his energies to the development of fans and blowers. The possibilities of putting air to work seemed endless. And indeed they were.

Sturtevant was not an engineer. He had never studied in a technical school. In fact, there were no such schools in America at that time. Yet he mastered the engineering problem of putting air to work. His first accomplishment was the invention of mechanical dust-removing devices. No laws requiring the removal of dust in factories were written on the statute- books at that time. The public was indifferent.

Nowhere was any attention paid to the normal requirement that each worker in a factory should be supplied with 3,000 cubic feet of fresh air each hour. Little heed was paid to the ravages of tuberculosis brought about by the breathing of dust laden air.

The so-called “dusty trades” were content to remain dusty. That a worker in a cement plant breathes one pound of dust in five years, or the feeder of a wool-breaker in a carpet mill one pound in seven years, even if known, caused no alarm.

But these facts were of the utmost significance to Sturtevant. In a little shop in Sudbury Street, Boston, he began his business. At that time his sixteen workmen supplied practically all the fans that the world could use. Beginning with a little exhaust fan, which, placed close to a buffing-wheel, sucked away every particle of dust from his pegging-machine, Sturtevant proceeded to invent new types.

EARLY VERSION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN STURTEVANT’S EXHAUST FAN. Belt drives were common to many factories operating equipment from a variety of power sources. Sturtevant’s blower used the standard belt drive.


A fan or blower consists essentially of a rotating shaft, upon which are mounted curved vanes, the whole being enclosed in a tight-fitting case and connected with an outlet pipe. On one side is produced suction, on the other a draft. Suction or draft may be produced on either side at will simply by changing the direction of rotation.

It must not be supposed that any one standard type of machine met all requirements. Each new plant had its own special needs, and it was in meeting these special needs that the genius of Sturtevant found full play.

Each new set of conditions received his careful study. Sometimes fans or blowers alone answered. At other times water sprays and special devices had to be combined with the regular equipment. But Sturtevant was never baffled. He had made war on dust, and dust was always vanquished.

One of his earliest machines devours the shavings that rise in clouds from the planning-mills. Sometimes these are carried a mile or more in the dust-pipes and fed directly to the furnace fires.

This is true in a coal-breaker, where the fuel dust that otherwise fills the air is conveyed straight to the boilers. Similarly, these dust systems draw off the noxious gases that poison the air and endanger the lives of the workers in chemical industries. In machine-shops the fine metal chips, which, like two-edged swords, cut the delicate membranes of the lungs and carry death in their wake, have been banished.

WORKMEN CAN NOW WORK DUST FREE. Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant’s blowers are used in a variety of ways to improve the air in factories.

But the most remarkable machine of all is a fan that pulls sparks out of smoke. It is installed in a lumber-mill located in the midst of a forest. The hot gases are drawn through fans and blown into large centrifugal separators. These whirl out the burning cinders into a receptacle and allow only the gases to escape at the top.

Soon Sturtevant found that the uses of air are almost numberless. He next turned his attention to the transporting of light material on the wings of the wind. Formerly only a symbol of magic power, this is now a reality.

All sorts of light materials such as wool, cotton, hemp, flax, hair, jute, rags, shavings, grain, coffee, wood pulp, and dozens more, may be borne with magic ease and swiftness in air conveyers. Carried from department to department, up or down, shunted hither and thither, like water in a pipe, these materials are in very truth conveyed on wings of air. Suction-fans connected with these conveyer systems frequently pull their loads along at the rate of a mile a minute.

Huge suction-spouts, dipping into the hold of a ship, lift grain a distance of forty or fifty feet, and discharge it at the rate of 200 tons an hour into the storage-bins. At one Canadian port, grain is lifted ninety feet and carried 700 feet. In the same manner, coal is astonishingly sucked from barges, and practically any material, if not too bulky, may be air-conveyed if desired.

Not only will air convey these materials, but it will pick out the dirt at the same time. Grain, coffee, and other products are frequently mixed with dirt and gravel. But the air current may be so nicely adjusted that the heavy foreign matter will fall and only the lighter good material will be carried on. For example, air separates the popped from the unpopped corn in a fritter factory.

SECTIONAL VIEW THROUGH PLANT OF PIEDMONT-MOUNT AIRY GUANO COMPANY. This plant unloads phosphate rock at the rate of thirty tons per hour through a four-inch air-hose.


When Sturtevant began applying scientific principles to the problem of ventilation, the health value of fresh air was but vaguely understood. Although men would not drink dirty water, they were content to breathe hot, humid, germ-laden air. The desirability of supplying an abundance of fresh air to factory, home, and public assembly-hall was wholly unappreciated.

Good ventilation is much more than a matter of supplying oxygen in proper quantity. It cannot be obtained by opening a window or starting a desk fan. One creates a draft, and the other stirs up dead air, dust, and microbes. Ventilation depends upon four factors: pure air, the amount of moisture present, temperature, and movement of the air.

To control these factors was a problem for the engineer. Until Sturtevant took it up, no one had attempted its solution. Few recognized its existence. Air that is too moist or too dry, too hot or too cold, dust or germ laden, breeds disease. Our steam-heated homes, frequently dryer than the Desert of Sahara, result in physical weakness, drowsiness, and mental sluggishness.

But modern ventilating systems have changed all this. The fans give to the air a gentle movement and drive it through a rain-chamber. Here the air is washed free of dust and, according to the temperature of the spray, moisture is added to or subtracted from it as required. It is then heated over steam-pipes and returned to those who breathe it as clean as the breezes after a summer shower. Thus has ventilation been reduced to a real science.

Such systems may give to air any desired temperature or degree of humidity. The sign so often seen outside a public amusement hall, “Twenty degrees cooler inside,” is frequently no catch-phrase. A Sacramento restaurant is kept at a uniform temperature of eighty-four degrees when the temperature outside is 102 in the shade.

Dwellings, factories, schools, libraries, churches, hospitals hotels, and theatres, everywhere, may now enjoy pure, health-giving air without stint, thanks to the ventilating engineer. One illustration will show the health dividends which such systems pay.

By the introduction of efficient ventilating systems, statistics prove that death-rates have been reduced in children’s hospitals from fifty to five per cent; in wards in general hospitals, from forty-four to thirteen per cent.; and in army hospitals from twenty-five to six per cent.



The weather is the subject of more discussion, praise, and abuse than any other topic of conversation. To control the weather day after day to suit our fancy or convenience has always been regarded as a Utopian dream. Yet Sturtevant and other ventilating engineers have made this dream come true.

Climate may be made to order—hot, humid, cold, or dry. If the candy-maker requires a mild climate in his factory it can be given him. Instead of closing his plant in the hot, sultry months of July and August, as he once did, he may adopt the slogan, “business as usual.” The production of artificial climate has enabled large storage-plants to keep fruits and vegetables for months with very slight loss.

England became a great cotton-spinning country because the humid English climate is the best natural climate for textile spinning and weaving. Now, since the engineer has harnessed the weather, textile mills may be located even in the midst of a desert. Indoor weather may be manufactured anywhere, and making it has become a great aid to modern industry.

Have you not noticed how on a cold, crisp winter day your hair crackles and stands on end as you brush it? This is due to tiny electric charges generated on hair and brush. The same effect is observed in textile mills as the cotton, silk, and wool fibres pass through the spinning—machines. It formerly caused no end of annoyance, because some fibres are attracted to each other and others repelled from each other.

Simply to humidify the air of the factory does not solve the problem. If steam is blown into a room, the atmosphere will become unbearably sultry; if water is sprayed in, the moisture will condense on machines and fabrics. By supplying air, carrying just the right amount of moisture, these annoying electrical effects are avoided. The modern ventilating engineer installs a system that provides a constant ideal climate suited to any given industrial purpose.¬


Many other industries require special climates. The manufacturer of photographic materials, gelatine, glue, paper, tobacco, foodstuffs, rubber, explosives, and many more, each must have his particular climate. Formerly an utter impossibility, this is now an accomplished fact of modern industry. It is one of the immensely practical results of putting air to work.

Many moist materials need drying. Asbestos, sugar-beets, bricks, soap, fibres, paper, lumber, tobacco, and yarn are a few of the many that require seasoning at some stage of their manufacture. Simply to apply heat is not sufficient. A special kind of air treatment is required. Thus, although previously ignored, a new problem presents itself to the modern engineer.

Lumber is one of the best examples of the need of seasoning. Wood for pianos, furniture, airplanes, unless dried, will split in time. Kilns are, of course, necessary, but the old-style kiln spoiled much valuable wood. The wood was unequally dried, and therefore it cracked and warped. It was not dried according to nature’s process.

Engineers who came after Sturtevant studied the process, and discovered that the temperatures were too high and the volumes of air too low. Ordinarily it takes two years to dry the wood used in airplane construction. Two years in time of war was unthinkable in a national crisis.

The necessities of war prodded the engineers into activity. They devised a process of circulating the drying air in larger volumes and at lower temperatures in a kiln. The wood was seasoned progressively, and wood for airplanes was dried, not in two years, but in two weeks.

The difficulties encountered by the paper manufacturer in drying his product have been removed by the application of the same principles. And there are many more examples.



As you have fanned or blown the dying embers of your campfire into a ruddy glow, you have applied in a primitive way the principles of mechanical draft. To burn, fuel must have oxygen, and its only source of oxygen is the air.

Why is it that large factories have such huge, tall chimneys? Principally to produce a draft for the furnace fires. The difference in pressure, or weight, between the cold, heavy air outside and the hot, light gases inside, forces the air through the fires and up the chimney.

But there is a better way. The chimney disfigures the landscape. It will not draw well when the wind is not right. Besides a chimney is expensive. For much less than half its cost the engineer who knows how to put air to work will install a blowing system that will do all that the chimney does, and more.

More than sixty years ago Sturtevant began to apply science to the production of draft. His suction-fan simply pushed the hot gases up a short stack, thus creating a partial vacuum in the furnace behind it; into this vacuum the air from the outside rushed to feed the fire. It seems easy, but the world had plodded on for centuries without making application of this simple principle. Sometimes a “forced draft” is employed. A blower is placed under the furnace grate, and air is sucked from the outside and blown into the fire.

And what did these systems do? They made the manufacturer independent of wind and weather. They made possible a furnace fire of any desired temperature. They increased fuel and power efficiency.


Hot gases, forced through a system of water-pipes at the outlet of the furnace, were robbed of their heat, and at the same time a bountiful supply of hot water was provided for factory purposes. This same system, too, extracted the soot from the furnace gases, and thereby eliminated the smoke nuisance.

The first blast-furnace—on the principle of a hand bellows—consisted of a hole in the ground into which were alternately thrown lumps of iron ore and charcoal. By vigorous work, two men squatting over this crude furnace would produce a dozen pounds of metal in a day.

Contrast with this the blast-furnace, ninety feet high, that swallows every day 800 tons of ore, 400 tons of coke, and 100 tons of limestone, yielding some 400 tons of molten pig iron every twenty-four hours. This process hangs on a blast of air.

Without the forced draft, the Bessemer process, which revolutionized the metallurgy of iron, and ushered in the Age of Steel, would have been impossible. Forced draft is employed in the extraction of many other metals, such as copper, zinc, and lead.

The Continuous supply of fresh air, indispensable to the health of the miners who go down into the depths of the earth to bring back the stores of fuel and precious metals, also comes from huge fans.

In the foregoing paragraphs we have described only a few of the great variety of uses to which “low-pressure air” is put.

There are many more, but enough have been cited to show the Immense importance of this vast, new field of invention, in which Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant was the pioneer.

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