A short history of mechanical fans

With the gradual reduction in use of the ladies’ fan following the First World War the Company started to take an increasing interest in mechanical fans. In 1939 the Court formally recognised this modern form of the craft as a logical extension to the Company’s sphere of interests and resolved to play an active part in supporting the vigorous and innovative heating, ventilating and air conditioning industry. Consequently, after the intervention of the Second World War, in 1948 the Company elected B Donald Hughes as its first Master who was a mechanical fan maker.

The histories of the fan and the bellows are closely connected. There is evidence that bellows were in use in Mesopotamia in around 2000 BC and a little later in Egypt. Then, in about 400 BC the Chinese invented a double-action piston-type bellows for furnaces concerned with the production of cast iron – about 2000 years before that metals application in the West.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) made use of fans in two of his designs, the power for one being the use of hot rising currents of air, and the other by clockwork with a falling weight regulated by a fly. However, the greatest incentive to the development of fans was the mining industry.

In the 16th Century the extraction of coal, metal ores and other substances was severely hampered by bad ventilation. Georgious Agricola published ‘RE DE METALLICA’ in 1556, a detailed description of the earliest attempts at ventilation in mines. They embodied many of the principles which later developed into highly sophisticated airflow systems. Agricola’s famous work became the textbook on mining and metallurgy but his ventilation methods were not widely applied for nearly two centuries because of the lack of knowledge of the properties of air and man’s requirements for health and safety.

The 17th Century saw much experimentation in air pressure and temperature by scientists like Galileo, Torricelli, Pascal, Boyle and Newton which led to the invention of the air pump and the creation of the ‘impossible’ vacuum. Sir Christopher Wren was one of the first to apply the new knowledge to a practical use with his designs for heating and ventilating the Houses of Parliament in the 1660’s.

The origin of the English word ‘bellows’ was ‘blast-baelig’ – a blow bag. Blowing machines were developed in the 17th and 18th centuries which consisted of a piston, cylinder and valve.

The seat of British government was also the site for further efforts at air circulation by Dr John Théophile Desaguliers. His first attempt in 1723 utilized the theory of chimneys with fires to draw the air out of the room. In 1727 he designed a fan system to remove the foul air from the Earl of Westmorland’s mines, and in 1743 he exhibited it at the Royal Society in London. Then, in 1745 he installed a much more successful apparatus at the Houses of Parliament.

Even before the massive industrialisation of the 19th century, mining for coal and other commodities produced numerous industrial problems. Apart from the collapse of tunnels, the major danger was gas which might either asphyxiate the miners or explode with even more disastrous results. Ventilation was the answer. Early efforts expounded the values of connected galleries to give air circulation, but it was not until fans were fitted to move the air that conditions really began to improve.

Reciprocating air pumps began to be used in mining ventilation by John Smeaton (1724 – 1792), and in 1813 John Buddle (1773 – 1843) used ‘exhausting piston pumps’ in North East England. However, air pumps were subject to breakdown and valve leakage; consequently, old fashioned methods continued to be used, including furnaces lit at the bottom of shafts which induced an upward draft, but were also highly dangerous because of the presence of very inflammable gases.
These problems, and others, led to the greater use of fans which could be driven by steam engines. In 1849 a 6,000 mm diameter centrifugal, steam driven fan was installed at Gelly Gaer Colliery in South Wales from a design by William Brunton (1777 – 1851) and a model was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Théophile Guibal (1814 – 1888) designed a very successful centrifugal fan which was installed in around 150 locations in France, Belgium and the UK by 1870. Other important development were produced by Ser, Rateau, Capell and Galland.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that ‘air conditioning’ arrived, and in particular the invention of refrigeration that enabled real progress to be made in respect of controlling working climate and providing a comfortable environment. The Thermotank and Punka Louvre systems invented by A W Stewart were important steps towards the systems we enjoy today which not only control temperature and humidity, but also remove dust and fumes and change the air on a continuing basis, all with fans.

Of particular pertinence to the Company were the airflow requirements of the Channel Tunnel, the largest civil engineering project to be undertaken in recent history. Not only because of the obvious association with fans, but also because the Operations Manager for the Channel Tunnel contractors, Transmanche-Link during the design and construction period, was Liveryman Don Love.

The present day applications of fans are far too numerous to list, but this history would not be complete without mention of the fan in the aviation industry. Indeed, it has justly been suggested that the invention of the gas turbine engine, which incorporates a very sophisticated fan, changed the world in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. With that in mind, the previous Chairman of Rolls-Royce plc, Sir Ralph Robins, who gave our Tercentenary Lecture on the modern fan, is a Liveryman of the Company and can rightly be regarded as another ‘famous Fan Maker’.

In respect of the mechanical fan, the Company is associated with: Cranfield University; the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers; the National College of Heating, Ventillating, Refrigeration and Fan Engineering; and The Fan Manufacturers’ Association.