August 17, 2022

Back to Compressed Air School Part 1: History of Compressed Air

Compressed Air has been around as long as humans have walked this Earth!  Did you know that the first ever air compressor was considered to be the human lung?  Just as modern compressors work, our bodies exhale oxygen as a compressor pressurizes and releases air.  However, as our world started to progress, providing our own oxygen pressure for various tasks came to a halt around 3000 BC. 

1500 BC

During 1500 BC, bellows began to replace our own lung capacity. It was originally a handheld device that would later be upgraded to foot-control. Bellows consisted of a bag that was able to expand and collapse as the paddles were moved to create a concentrated blast of air that was able to reach higher temperatures than our own breath.

LATE 1700S

It wasn’t until 1762 that this mechanism was replaced for a more efficient method invented by John Smeaton: a water wheel-driven blowing cylinder.

In 1776, John Wilkinson created a blasting machine that paved the way for future mechanical compressed air equipment. It was at this time that compressors were starting to be used for more complex and industrial tasks such as mining, metals fabrication, and underground ventilation. Because of this, John Wilkinson’s design was used for the next 50 years of history.


By 1800, people were now using compressed air to transmit energy at higher rates. By the mid-1800s, a new and improved, compound-based air compressor entered the world and was patented. This air compressor was used to power pneumatic drills while utilizing wet compressors to cool the air inside the rock being mined.

These compressors dominated the market up until about the 1870’s when a compressor that relied on water jets for cooling was adopted- making leaps and bounds in innovation compared to the earlier models. Once Austrian engineer, Viktor Popp, created the first compressor plant in Paris in 1888, massive amounts of compressed air innovations followed. Inventors moved quickly after Popp’s success to patent a variety of different tools and accessories that utilized the power of compressed air


Air compressors were extremely inefficient up until about the 20th century (comparatively). They were unreliable and provided generally slow production to all applications. In 1920, Alan Arnold Griffith researched and studied the issues of the compressors’ systems and came up with his own solution. He claimed airfoil would produce better results and was met with lots of opposition. His paper written with his findings provoked engineers to take a closer look and use a newer perspective which helped them come closer to inventing a turbine engine.

It was throughout the 19th and 20th century discoveries that the groundwork was laid for the three most common types of modern compressor systems today. Massive innovations took place in the world that relied on compressed air to advance as well. Some of these innovations included automobiles, military artillery, skyscrapers, stadiums, aviation, the rise of middle-class suburbs, home appliances, and mass food production.


All this history would pave the way to now, the 21st century, where we are living in a world full of innovative technology and new efficiencies- including in the compressor world! We will begin to go over modern air compressors in the coming blog posts in our “Back to Compressed Air School” trilogy.



Zorn is the Midwest leader of custom, engineered compressed air and vacuum solutions. We provide the best customer experience by understanding your applications and needs and offering an unparalleled commitment to customer satisfaction. 

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Our compressed air experts look forward to meeting you to discuss your equipment and support needs. Please contact us directly at (262) 695-7000 with any questions or to schedule service for your system moving forward.

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