What machine can work without electricity

Agriculture without electricity

Muscle power drove machines

Tamara Retterath, Lirstal

A contemporary witness told me: As the son of a small peasant family, I think back to the war and post-war years, when electricity was mostly unavailable. Everything that is powered electrically today, as a matter of course, was often operated by hand in the past. A good example of hand-operated devices in agriculture at the time is the chopping machine, which was used to chop up straw and hay in order to feed the cattle. This machine was operated in such a way that one person put in the hay and straw at the back, while one or two people at the front turned an approximately 80 centimeter long wooden handle that encompassed an iron axle that set a flywheel in motion on the two knives were attached. While my father put in the back, I often had to help the front to turn the flywheel. I can still remember that very well, as the wooden handle on our machine was badly worn out, so that I often squeezed my hands on it as a child. Some rural properties did not operate the chopping machine with human labor, but worked with a so-called "Göbel". It was a device that was permanently mounted outside the barn: a round iron structure with a diameter of about three meters. An animal - horse, cow, or ox - was clamped to this iron structure and walked in circles and turned the device. This moved a ring gear over a universal joint, which in turn drove a shaft that led into the barn and thus started the machine. That was a great relief for the smallholders, but unfortunately this was not possible on our farm due to the specific location of the barn.

With or without Göbel: The chopped material was mixed with finely chopped turnips for feeding to the animals. For the chopping of the turnips there was again the Krötzelmüll´, as it was called in the Eife-ler Platt. Today it is called a beet cutter. This device also used to have to be operated manually. It was a wooden frame with a funnel-shaped box on top. In the middle ran a wooden shaft about 25 centimeters thick, fitted with iron nails as thick as a finger, which were half-bent so that the turnips, which were placed in the funnel-shaped box at the top, came out in pieces when turned. It happened that turnips got stuck in the box. Then you had to pull them apart again by hand, but that was very dangerous because your fingers could get caught in the sharp hooks and injure yourself. After the turnips were also chopped in this way, the forage could be mixed up and the cattle are given. From today's perspective unthinkable, as it was very exhausting and time-consuming. The later electric beet cutters, however, were far more convenient; such electrical devices could only be operated when electricity was introduced into households, since normal electricity was only sufficient for light, but not for these machines. The children already had to take on a lot of the work in the house and yard. Every day in the afternoons after I finished my homework, before I could go outside to play, I had to carve two large baskets of turnips and some extra hay plucking. This child labor was the same and common in all families at the time, but I was the only son in the family and so I had to do these chores alone. How beautiful I imagined living in a family with several children, where the work was shared, and wished I had many siblings.

The hay-plucking work, which was part of my daily tasks and was done with the so-called “hay-plucking”, served to feed the cattle with loosened hay in order to be able to use the fodder better so that the remaining haystack could run should last longer. Whether for the hay harvest, for which hay grabs are now available in the barns to lift loads, or for other work, everything used to be done by hand. It took at least three people to unload a car, for example. One of them stood on the wagon while the hay was being unloaded, handing hay, straw or sheaves upstairs. Halfway up, the next person had to take it and use a fork to reach up to the third or possibly fourth person, depending on the height of the barn building. In winter the cattle had to be watered in buckets in the barn. To do this, water was first drawn from the well in the courtyard and laboriously dragged into the stable with the zinc bucket. To prevent the animals from getting sick, more water had to be heated on the stove in the kitchen, and then cold water was added to keep the water at a comfortable temperature for the cattle. Watering the cattle in winter was also my job as a child, as the father had to earn extra money in the logging and both mother and grandmother did spinning in the cold season in addition to sewing, knitting and crocheting. In the house itself there was a kerosene lamp on the wall, which provided a light in the dark in the event of a power failure. The reason for the then relatively frequent power outages were probably bad voltages. But the population knew what to do and hadn't disposed of the kerosene lamp yet, but was always close at hand, just in case. In the war years there was a shortage of kerosene, so some people quickly fitted the lamp with diesel, which firstly stank more than kerosene and secondly smoked terribly, but the poor people were happy to have a little light at all.

Almost every farm household made butter from milk. Since every small business in our village kept dairy cows, there was enough milk to make butter. I still think back with horror to the time when I had to turn the centrifuge as a child. It was a device in which the milk was poured in at the top and the cream was removed from the milk by gravity, that is, the milk was separated into its components whey and cream. It was mostly children's work. I would of course have preferred to have been able to play outside with other children than spin the centrifuge. During the further processing into butter, the collected cream was poured into a so-called butter churn. Here the procedure began all over again. The churn was made of wood; it was operated with a crank on the side. Inside the barrel, a cross-shaped perforated battens moved, which moved the cream until butter was formed from it. It was boring as a child, of course, but it was one of my duties. This job was very exhausting for me, so as a child I didn't care about eating butter and preferred to smear my sandwiches with jam or jelly. So I thought I could postpone butter making.

Housekeeping without electrical appliances was not easy for women either. An electric kitchen machine was out of the question; the dough for bread or cake was kneaded by hand. The vacuum cleaner was also a foreign word for the common people, apart from the fact that the rural population didn't have a carpet anyway, everything in the house was cleaned up with a damp cloth. The stove was cleaned spick and span every day. Everything was heated on the charcoal stove in the kitchen. So I can clearly remember that my grandmother, who lived with us at home, earned something in addition to farming and therefore sewed a lot for other people - with the sewing machine in the footstep. She smoothed the finished clothes with irons that were laboriously heated on the stove. Several cast irons were always in use. At times there were five or six irons on the stove at the same time, so that when the one being used cooled down, at least one iron was always heated enough so that the ironing would go on quickly without any major interruptions. Washing clothes was also a long, laborious affair that took at least a full working day, depending on the size of the family. The dirty laundry was first soaked overnight in a tub, then on the next day - the actual “washing day” - it was boiled on a charcoal stove in a washing kettle and then sometimes tedious on a washboard with the help of a brush scrubbed.

After the lean war years, it was announced in our little town that on a certain day of the week a device would be demonstrated in the mayor's apartment, which would make housewife's laundry easier. On the poster it was advertised as a “small washing machine”. As it turned out, this was actually a relief, more precisely a so-called "laundry rammer". As far as I know, each of the women present bought this tool, including my mother, who was delighted with it when the laundry was later, as the masher saved the scrubbing on the washboard. The rammer was designed so that the lower part yielded when the pressure was applied from above when it resisted the laundry in the tub. This created a vacuum, the washing water was kept moving and the laundry was cleaned. Finally, you put the white linen (white linen sheets) on the lawn to be bleached and you had to be careful to keep it wet with the watering can for at least a day. The sun's rays then led to the desired lightening of the linen, which grew whiter with every wash and every subsequent bleaching process. Of course, only the wealthy benefited from the invention of the first washing machine over 100 years ago. Over the years, however, a highly technical device with electronically controlled work programs has developed from the wooden tub (looks like a butter machine from the outside), which is now a matter of course in (almost) every household. One could enumerate many more devices that used to be operated by hand and muscle power; and despite the hard physical work you hear nowadays again and again about the "good old days".