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No. 3082:
Charles Havelock Taylor

by Andy Boyd

Today, the power of observation. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1895, while working on the construction of a dam in Quebec, Charles Havelock Taylor noticed something. In winter, water flowing over the spillway created air bubbles that became trapped under ice sheets at the bottom of the dam. The trapped air was compressed in the same way as air in a bicycle tire, causing the ice to bulge upward. And as an engineer, Taylor immediately realized the compressed air had the potential to be used as a power source.

But how? Consider the competition. In Taylor's time the most common source of power was the burning of cheap fossil fuels. Electric power was on the horizon. Further, compressed air is a perfectly good source of power, but it's better for some uses than others. It's not especially efficient for, say, heating a stove.

One area where compressed air excels is in the running of power tools. Nail guns. Paint sprayers. Those noisy jackhammers used to break up city pavement. Air powered tools are both powerful and cheaper to manufacture than their electrical counterparts since they don't need motors. Compressed air is also ideal for ventilation, far more efficient than running fans. Taylor concluded that the best places for testing his ideas were remote mines situated near waterfalls or dams.

A photograph of Great Conglomerate Falls, on northern Michigan's Black River. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Taylor's approach was ingeniously simple. Instead of ice, he began by excavating a cavern well below a river's surface. At the Victoria mine in Michigan's upper peninsula, for example, the cavern was 18 feet wide, 20 feet high, and the length of a football field. By properly channeling water in from above a nearby dam, and out below it, air became trapped in the cavern and rose in pressure. All that was needed were sealed pipes taking compressed air to the mining equipment. A safety valve led from the cavern to the surface that spewed like a geyser if pressure grew too high.

One of the beauties of Taylor's design is that it has no moving parts. Electricity generation requires spinning turbines and other equipment needing regular maintenance. Not so with Taylor's hydraulic air compression system. Set it up, let the river run through, and the system provides a perpetual source of air power.

Taylor's system doesn't remain widely used -- a casualty of the evolving economic landscape. But Taylor's design still captures the imagination for its combination of functionality and simplicity. And variations on Taylor's theme are now being resurrected. A consortium of Canadian agencies is undertaking a Taylor-like project aimed at ultra-deep mining operations -- operations more than one-and-a-half miles underground. The work may even lead to new methods for keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. I imagine Charles Taylor would be excited by the possibility.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Many thanks to Engines listener George Fleming for bringing this topic to my attention.


The Taylor Compressor. Information from the website of the Copper Country Explorer. Accessed August 15, 2016.

N. Tollinsky. "Hydraulic Air Compressor Project Has Green Light." Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal, February 23, 2016.

This episode was first aired on August 18, 2016