The earliest account of a speed reducer-esque mechanism was given in the works of Ismail al-Jazari, a Muslim polymath. He made mention of gearbox-like arrangements in his book, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, written around 1206 AD. The knowledge he imparted, however, was not widely acted upon. Rather, modern speed reducers weren’t developed until the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1817, Watt & Boulton Engine, an early British engineering and manufacturing company, came out with a version of the gearbox that used two gears and a governor to maintain rotational speed. In 1881, a French company called de Dion-Bouton began producing gearboxes for steam cars.
The first gear and drive shaft assembly, used to power manual transmission, was invented in 1898 by French inventors Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor. In 1904, the Sturtevant brothers in Boston, Massachusetts, invented the “horseless carriage gearbox.” Unfortunately, manufacturers of the time did not have access to the same metallurgy we do today, and so, these gears were given to abrupt shifts that lead to transmission failure.
Four years later, Henry Ford came out the with Model T, with gears that functioned using a planetary gearbox.
Throughout the twentieth century, engineers and manufacturers continued to revise, perfect and diversify the speed reducer. In 1928, for example, Cadillac introduced a power transmission system that significantly reduced gear grinding and made shifting smoother.
Now, in the 21st century, modern engineering has led to innovations that allow these mechanisms to be very compact and much smaller than they used to be. Precision machining during the manufacturing process for the gears and shafts ensures a close fit for the gear teeth. This maintains high levels of energy with minimal energy loss; many speed reducers are able to achieve efficiencies above 90%. Newer devices also require less electricity or fuel to operate, which helps increase efficiency. Reduction ratios continue to improve and reach new levels that were not possible in the past. Complex designs and assemblies such as those found in planetary gearboxes are able to routinely perform in repetitive or heavy duty situations. Build one for yourself, CLICK HERE!
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