Before the introduction of the water turbine in the 1830’s, the horizontal wheel was widely preferred to the vertical wheel for use due to its practicality, simplicity of manufacture, and affordability. The vertical wheel was in two forms, the ‘undershot’ and the ‘overshot’ configurations. Unlike the horizontal wheel, it was far more efficient than its predecessor.
Ancient engineers developed both the undershot and overshot wheels. The overshot method used water fed into buckets that were built into the circumference of a wheel.
It was not a success even though it had an efficiency of up to 70% with an average output of 7 horsepower. In addition, ancient engineers had developed only two applications that made use of the water-wheel, the flour mill, and the Noria (a device that was used to raise water into small aqueducts).
In the Medieval world, economic and social-economic needs played a major role in the harnessing of water power. While the nobles saw it as an alternative means of getting revenue from the peasantry, the clergy had a vested interest for its personal use (Reynolds, 1984). The growth in the variety applications of the water-wheel led to the invention of flour mills, beer mills, industrial mills, and hemp industries.
During the periods between the 10th and the 15th centuries, Medieval technicians were able to come up with ingenious plans to change rotary motion to linear movement through the use of a cam and crank. This coupled with certain geographical features might also have contributed to the wide adoption of water power with regions like Europe being littered with small perennial streams which flowed into the Mediterranean basin.
During the early middle ages, the European iron-masters smelted iron by burning it in a mixture of charcoal and ore, with the use of a hand or foot powered bellow.
This method turned out to be tedious and wasteful as every now and then the furnace had to be shut down in order for the smelter to remove a sponge-like residual mass known as ‘bloom’ from the furnace. The use of water-power led to the adoption of larger, more powerful bellows by smelters. This led to the development of a semi-continuous growth process which drastically reduced the use of manual labor.
The need for water power grew rapidly with the invention of the combined cam and a water wheel. This facilitated the growth of more industries such as the sawmill industry which used this technology to pull down a rip-saw while it was pulled back up by a spring pole. It was also used two centuries later to lift hammers for crushing ore while also controlling piston pumps for mine drainage.
Later in the medieval times, a crank which was an alternative to the cam was in use. Even though it was formerly used to manually rotate millstones in the ancient times, it found new use when it was combined with the water wheel to replace the cam.
Even without the use of water power in the textile industry, until later, in the medieval times, other processes that led to the making of cloth had already started using waterpower with examples ranging from the silk mills to the furling of wool.
The differences compounded in the comparison of the ancient and the medieval times are the conversion and improvement of already existing inventions to have greater efficiency by increasing their power output.
Reynolds, T. (1984). Scientific American. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.