Innovation and Scarcity (and Panic)

I tried to avoid such words. They sounded like hollow buzzwords in times of abundance, used by advertizers playing on fears.

But our complacent world is taught a lesson, right now, at furious speed. I am following news as everybody else, I am reading about gloomy forecasts. An Austria paper mill has announced today it will temporarily hold production because of skyrocketing energy costs. And this is a first-world-problem compared to brave Ukraine’s suffering in this war. All eyes are on the present and on the imminent dangers in the near future. Thus I look at the – not-so-distant – past.

On this blog, I have covered energy engineering with an emphasis on monitoring and control, on cyber security, on data analysis software and on numerical simulations. The nerd stuff. However, my heart has always been in low-tech. In an attempt to connect the dots – in my life and on this blog – I singled out Be creative with what is available as a motto. You can always throw technology at problems, you can always over-engineer things. But the true art of engineering is in building the simplest and most robust solution that solves a problem (also helping with the cyber threats, by the way). I enjoyed energy engineering lectures by down-to-earth veteran professors most – those who knew how the pressure in a steam vessel is regulated by analog-only feedback cycles.

This is not a I-knew-it-all blog post. I over-geeked a lot, too. I built a monster I called the Data Kraken. I was happy to indulge in physics again, playing with differential equations as if this was another PhD project. I under-emphasized simplicity and robustness where it would have been due: Our heat pump system has worked robustly not only because of the intricate control system we developed, but also because it has some purely analog and natural self-regulation built in.

But the main motivation for our heat pump project was not about nerdy internet-of-things stuff and nice-to-have automation. It was about becoming independent of Russian gas, no matter what. I remember, how I felt I the need to explain this ‘cultural background’ to American commentators when I wrote about the roots of the project. It was a wake-up call when gas stopped flowing in 2006 and 2009, in winter. However, a few years later, daring to argue with dependence on Russian gas, putting a price tag on a black-swan-like risk – this made you feel like the most paranoid prepper. When people just wanted their ROI Excel sheets, based on current energy prices and some fairy-tale interest rates.

Therefore, my heroes are the energy innovators of the past – the ones who already did the right thing during the 1970s oil shock or decades before. With hindsight, I see a series of articles on this blog – on these pioneers, their technical solutions, and their struggles! I am going back to this series!

I am regularly chasing broken links in old blog articles and fixing them. Not my favorite task. It’s finicky, and when you dig the internet for lost historical gems you cannot avoid spotting who ‘used’ your content without attribution. But I am beyond that now. Let’s get the stories out. (I’d still appreciate proper backlinks.)

I’ll start with bringing attention to Peter von Rittinger again, the inventor of what historians call The First Heat Pump. Read the full article for technical details, Rittinger’s background, and how his ‘steam pump’ worked.

Peter Rittinger’s steam pump, sketch from his 1857 paper. Link to my 2015 article that has also more info on the sources. It has been digitized by German Polytechnisches Archiv. The resources have been unavailable since a while.

This is the essential quote:

In the mid of the 19th century saltworks in Austria had been dependent on wood available locally. Having cut down forests, they ran out of fuel. Railway tracks have not been built yet, and fossil fuels had not yet been available. The ecological footprint had to be much closer to the physical area than today.

But Sectionsrath Rittinger was creative with what was available.


As you are here, I’d like to add a very low-tech version of a donate button. I am donating (money) myself, but I feel helpless otherwise. So I also try to donate my blog postings, sort of – as if this was a book, and I would donate all profits. If you have ever found my articles useful, interesting, entertaining, if they have helped you with solving a technical issue, building your CAN bus logger or even your solar/air/ice heat pump system, hacking Public Key Infrastructure, learning about Statistical Mechanics or simulations, or if you enjoyed looking at my visual art in times of panic, or getting into panic because of my strange poetry … please consider donating to your favorite project or charity that supports Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees now. I trust in you and I hope you do – so I will keep blogging and creating!

Edit: I recommend donating to the Austrian project (registered NGO) Cards for Ukraine.


Coloring my math art in my - now - favorite colors, blue and yellow. Real and imaginary part of complex function 1/z
Coloring my math art in my – now – favorite colors, blue and yellow. Real and imaginary part of complex function 1/z. More images here – I created them on the day Russia started the invasion. We will never go back to ‘normal’.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I have been thinking of those former posts in these past four weeks. Although I had never thought of the heat pump system in terms of prepper culture. So glad you are bringing these posts back.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks – the self-building aspect was always rather prepper-y – compared to what a typical home owner wanted ;-)

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