The origins of pneumatics can be traced back to the first century when ancient Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria wrote about his inventions powered by steam or the wind.
German physicist Otto von Guericke (1602 to 1686) went a little further. He invented the vacuum pump, a device that can draw out air or gas from the attached vessel. He demonstrated the vacuum pump to separate the pairs of copper hemispheres using air pressures. The field of pneumatics has changed considerably over the years. It has moved from small handheld devices to large machines with multiple parts that serve different functions.
Pneumatic systems in fixed installations, such as factories, use compressed air because a sustainable supply can be made by compressing atmospheric air. The air usually has moisture removed, and a small quantity of oil is added at the compressor to prevent corrosion and lubricate mechanical components.
Factory-plumbed pneumatic-power users need not worry about poisonous leakage, as the gas is usually just air. Smaller or stand-alone systems can use other compressed gases that present an asphyxiation hazard, such as nitrogen—often referred to as OFN (oxygen-free nitrogen) when supplied in cylinders.
Any compressed gas other than air is an asphyxiation hazard—including nitrogen, which makes up 78% of air. Compressed oxygen (approx. 21% of air) would not asphyxiate, but is not used in pneumatically-powered devices because it is a fire hazard, more expensive, and offers no performance advantage over air.
Portable pneumatic tools and small vehicles, such as Robot Wars machines and other hobbyist applications are often powered by compressed carbon dioxide, because containers designed to hold it such as soda stream canisters and fire extinguishers are readily available, and the phase change between liquid and gas makes it possible to obtain a larger volume of compressed gas from a lighter container than compressed air requires. Carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant and can be a freezing hazard if vented improperly.