A bellow or pair of bellows is a device constructed to furnish a strong blast of air. The simplest type consists of a flexible bag comprising a pair of rigid boards with handles joined by flexible leather sides enclosing an approximately airtight cavity which can be expanded and contracted by operating the handles, and fitted with a valve allowing air to fill the cavity when expanded, and with a tube through which the air is forced out in a stream when the cavity is compressed. It has many applications, in particular blowing on a fire to supply it with air.
The term "bellows" is used by extension for a flexible bag whose volume can be changed by compression or expansion, but not used to deliver air. For example, the light-tight (but not airtight) bag allowing the distance between the lens and film of a folding photographic camera to be varied is called a bellows.
"Bellows" is only used in plural. The Old English name for "bellows" was blǽstbęl(i)g, blást-bęl(i)g 'blast-bag', 'blowing-bag'; the prefix was dropped and by the eleventh century the simple bęlg, bylg, bylig ('bag') was used. The word is cognate with "belly". There are similar words in Old Norse, Swedish, and Danish and Dutch (blaasbalg), but the derivation is not certain. 'Bellows' appears not to be cognate with the apparently similar Latin follis.
Several processes, such as metallurgical iron smelting and welding, require so much heat that they could only be developed after the invention, in antiquity, of the bellows. The bellows are used to deliver additional air to the fuel, raising the rate of combustion and therefore the heat output.
Various kinds of bellows are used in metallurgy:
Chinese bellows were originally made of ox hide with two pots as described in Mozi's book on military technology in the Warring States Period (4th century BC). By the Han Dynasty, contact with Southeast Asian cultures exposed the Chinese to the bamboo-based piston bellows of Southeast Asians. The acquired piston bellows technology completely replaced the Chinese ox hide bellows that by the Song Dynasty, the ox hide bellows were completely extinct. The Han Dynasty Chinese mechanical engineer Du Shi (d. 38) is credited with being the first to use hydraulic power on a double-action piston pumps, through a waterwheel, to operate bellows in metallurgy. His invention was used to operate piston bellows of blast furnaces in order to forge cast iron. The ancient Greeks, ancient Romans, and other civilizations used bellows in bloomery furnaces producing wrought iron. Bellows are also used to send pressurized air in a controlled manner in a fired heater.
In modern industry, reciprocating bellows are usually replaced with motorized blowers.
Double-acting piston bellows are a type of bellows used by blacksmiths and smelters to increase the air flow going into the forge, with the property that air is blown out on both strokes of the handle (in contrast to simpler and more common bellows that blow air when the stroke is in one direction and refill the bellows in the other direction). These bellows blow a more constant, and thus stronger, blast than simple bellows. Such bellows existed in China at least since the 5th century BC, when it was invented, and had reached Europe by the 16th century. In 240 BC, The ancient Greek inventor Ctesibius of Alexandria independently invented a double-action piston bellow used to lift water from one level to another.
A piston is enclosed in a rectangular box with a handle coming out one side. The piston edges are covered with feathers, fur, or soft paper to ensure that it is airtight and lubricated. As the piston is pulled, air enters from the far side and the air in the near chamber is compressed and forced into a side chamber, where it flows through the nozzle. Then as it is pushed air enters from the near side and the air in the far chamber flows through the same nozzle.
These have three leaves. The middle leaf is fixed in place. The bottom leaf is moved up and down. The top leaf can move freely and has a weight on it. The bottom and the middle leaves contain valves, the top one does not. Only the top lung is connected to the spout.
When the bottom leaf is moved up, air is pumped from the bottom lung into the top lung. At the same time air is leaving the bellows from the top lung through the spout, but at a slower rate. This inflates the top lung. Next the bottom leaf is moved down to pull fresh air into the bellows. While this happens the weight on the top leaf pushes it down, so air keeps leaving through the spout.
This design does not increase the amount of air flow going into the forge, but provides a more constant air flow compared to a simple bellows. It also provides more even air flow than two simple bellows pumped alternately or one double-acting piston bellows.
In archaeological ruins of the Levant, archaeologists have found primitive pot bellows, consisting of a ceramic pot to which a loose leather hide had been attached at the top. Such pot bellows were constructed with a wide rim, so that the hide covering would transmit a maximum amount of air when pumped. The covering was fastened to the pot with a cord under an out-turned rim, or in a groove just below the rim exterior. An opening near the base served to insert a pipe of pen shapable material whose purpose was to direct the air blast to either the furnace or crucible, and which was usually done through the mediation of a tuyère. Tuyères used in conjunction with pot bellows had the function of protecting the ends of perishable tubes leading from the pot into the fire. Places in Saharan Africa still make use of primitive pot bellows.
The term "bellows" is used by extension for a number of applications that do not involve air transfer.
Bee smokers have bellows attached to the side to provide air to a slow burning fuel. This allows for an increased rate of combustion and a temporarily higher output of smoke on command, something desirable when calming domesticated bees.
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