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Thread: Machine shop powered by Pelton water wheel

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    Machine shop powered by Pelton water wheel

    Previously we featured the Knight Foundry, a water-powered machine shop in Sutter Creek, California established in 1873, that's up and running for visitors today. The Knight Foundry was powered by a water wheel known as the "Knight Wheel".

    Here's an example of a machine shop powered by a different 1800s water wheel known as a Pelton Wheel.

    Lester Pelton was born in Ohio in 1929. He headed out to California in 1850 to participate in the gold rush. He never struck it rich as a gold miner, but he managed to improve upon the design of the Knight Wheel, by creating a water wheel that captured flowing water's kinetic energy, rather than the energy provided by its head. Pelton's wheel was incredibly efficient for its time (around 90% efficiency), and his basic design is still in use today all over the world.

    A Pelton water wheel:

    Unlike traditional water wheels, which rely on the weight of water to turn the wheel, Pelton water wheels use the impulse of moving water. Pelton's wheels also used two side-by-side mounted buckets on the water wheel, which split the water stream into two, to more efficiently capture the water's kinetic energy.

    One of the likely apocryphal anecdotes surrounding Pelton's discovery claimed that he was:

    "watching a spinning water turbine when the key holding its wheel onto its shaft slipped, causing it to become misaligned. Instead of the jet hitting the cups in their middle, the slippage made it hit near the edge; rather than the water flow being stopped, it was now deflected into a half-circle, coming out again with reversed direction. Surprisingly, the turbine now moved faster."

    History loves to condense the act of invention into stories of singular incidents of discovery. More likely, Pelton went through numerous iterations of his wheel, burning money, failing over and over, and cursing repeatedly along the way. At least they aren't claiming that he discovered the Pelton Wheel one day when an apple fell on his head!

    A drawing from the Pelton wheel patent:

    At Wilder Ranch State Park, just north of Santa Cruz, California, you can see a machine shop powered by a Pelton Wheel, right down to the leather belts. Sawmill, lathe, drill bit, grindstone, and of course, coffee grinder. The shop and grounds have been restored in the '70s, and include volunteers dressed in period-correct clothing.


    Wilder Ranch State Park Santa Cruz California
    Pelton Wheel patent


    1873 water-powered machine shop Knight Foundry
    Steam-powered machine shop

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