Moving on from “Ancient Times” (covered in my previous article here) we enter what is known as the “Common Era” (CE.)

In the intervening years, humanity made slow progress for what most refer to as “The Dark Ages,” during which advances in literature, medicine, arts or anything else were slow or virtually non-existent.

Then around the beginning of the Seventeenth Century things started to change, and progress across the world began increasing as seen by the number of new inventions.

Image by R. Routledge

Temperature Control

We’ll start in England, where we find Cornelis Drebbel creating the first mercury thermostat around 1620. He designed it in order to control temperature on a chicken incubator.

As manufacturing industries had similar temperature control needs, in particular the textile mills in the 1830’s, Andrew Ure developed the bi-metallic thermostat which would bend as one of the metals expanded in response to an increase in temperature. This was then used to cutoff the supply of energy.

This simple invention would be considered by most to be the beginning of the automation of temperature control in industry. (Ref-1)

Governor Control

In 1788, James Watt adapted a centrifugal governor, that was invented by Christiaan Huygens to regulate distance and pressure between millstones and windmills, to control his steam engine where it regulates the admission of steam into the cylinders.

This development proved so important he is often regarded as the inventor. The widest use of the centrifugal governor was on steam engines during the nineteenth century often referred to as the “Steam Age”. (Ref-2)

From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s most controls systems inventions were focused on the basic process activities of controlling temperatures, pressures, liquid levels and the speed of rotating machines.

However, with the growth in the size of naval guns, ships, and new weapons such as torpedoes, (invented in 1867,) there was an increased need for industrial controls on hydraulic, pneumatic and steam systems.

As ships got bigger, the steering controls became more complex due to the larger hydrodynamic forces on the rudder. And the larger gear ratios between the helm and the rudder resulted in slow response times to steering changes.

In 1873 Jean Joseph Léon Farcot published a book on what he called “servo-motcur” or “moteur asservi” which we now call servomechanisms and servomotors.  (Ref-4).

Electrical Controls

Alessandro Volta created what was effectively the first DC (Direct Current) battery in 1800.

Over the next hundred years, there would be many inventors and inventions that would eventually give rise to AC (Alternating Current).

Genius Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse were pioneers in the development of AC electricity, but there were also many others who contributed to the development of electricity including James Watt, Andre Ampere and George Ohm.

If you work around electricity very much, you will certainly recognize those names.

Relay-Logic was heavily implemented in the early 1900’s and the need for monitoring and controls in the manufacturing and utility industries created the “control room” areas where many automatic controls were needed to operate boilers, generators and other equipment.

All kinds of inventions were created such as the chart recorder, lights and on/off type controls were invented and implemented.

Pneumatic Controls

While we could start with air compressors going back as far as 3000 BCE, I’ll begin in the 1920’s with the development of pneumatic control equipment.

These would not be widely developed and implemented until around 1930, by Clesson Mason of the Foxboro Company.

Starting around 1932, these wideband pneumatic controllers were widely used in many control applications across industries, primarily to drive the diaphragm control valve. Industry standards such as 3-15 PSI were also implemented during this time.

Ref 3, Image by Markus Schweiss


From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, advancements in mechanical and pneumatic systems, as well as the invention of reliable electrical generation, made it possible for the manufacturing of large quantities of products automatically.

This in turn lead to the growth of large electrical utilities, bringing electrical distribution to a scale large enough for all of society to benefit from.

While we’ve only covered a fragment of the many inventions that shaped the control system world during the Industrial Revolution, it has been enough to show that it took many gifted minds working together to bring about the current technology we’re using a century later.

Written by Brandon Cooper
Senior Controls Engineer and Freelance Writer

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Brandon Cooper




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