Wire rope transmission in 1896. Source: Stadtarchiv Schaffhausen.

Kris De Decker at  Low-tech Magazine has published a fascinating article discussing rope drives, a 19th-century technology that was used, especially in Europe, to transmit power over shorter distances. This method of transmission was actually “more efficient than electricity for distances up to 5 kilometres” and even today “would be more efficient than electricity over relatively short distances.”

De Decker makes an interesting connection to the spread of small-scale renewable energy production and suggests a possible role for a technology such as the endless rope drive:

“In spite of [some drawbacks discussed in the article], power transmission by ropes might have a place in our energy systems. Today, there is a trend towards small-scale, decentralized power production, based on renewable energy sources. These solar panels, water turbines or wind turbines generate electricity, but whenever we need to produce mechanical energy, eliminating the step of generating electricity could result in a somewhat less practical, but more efficient use of energy.”

De Decker thinks that “If we used modern materials for making ropes and pulleys, we could further improve this forgotten method.” He illustrates his article with many photos of 19th-century installations.

ARB — 4 April 2013