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How Amish Get Around Using Electricity for Power Tools

By Wesley Fenlon

NPR's visit to an Amish tool expo shows how ingenuity is getting around the issue of electricity. But electricity, too, from certain sources, is slowly gaining acceptance in Amish communities.

Table saws and circular saws, cordless drills and sanders--these are all tools we associate, naturally, with electricity. They're tools that make the lives of carpenters and construction workers dramatically easier, replacing pure human-created force with the power of electricity. That electrical dependence also makes them tools the Amish, who avoid electricity in their homes and workshops, will never use--unless someone gets creative.

NPR's Planet Money recently featured a segment recorded at a tool expo in Dalton, Ohio, which sounds normal enough. The tools on display, however, weren't. They were modified, specialized versions of the power tools you'd see at Home Depot, trading out electrical dependency for compressed air power.

Photo Credit: Flickr user nonsensebird via creative commons

"There are more than a hundred vendors at the show, all selling some Amish twist on technology," writes Planet Money. As land grows more expensive and farming as a way of life becomes less practical, many younger Amish turn to trades like woodworking to make a living. Having power tools is a game-changer in those trades, a way to be more efficient, do better work, and bring in more money. But NPR approaches the obvious question these tools raise: are the Amish slowly adopting more technology into their lives, bending rules that would have once forbidden such tools?

One booth at the tool convention sold computers designed for the Amish, which meant no Internet, no video, and no music capabilities.

Air-powered tools don't really indicate that kind of change; after all, Amish have been using diesel generators and tractors and gas lamps and other such technologies for years. Electricity, though, is still verboten...mostly. NPR's Robert Smith ran into an Amish businessman who has a phone back home, though he keeps it in a separate building, along with an answering machine, so that he can't hear it ringing.

It seems almost inevitable that the Amish will find it harder and harder to avoid hard ties to the outside world as they slowly adopt more technologies. Computers, for example. One booth at the tool convention sold computers designed for the Amish, which meant no Internet, no video, and no music capabilities. But spreadsheets, word documents, and CAD software were front and center.

That's a device that could quickly justify a connection to the outside world. And maybe that will happen in some Amish communities. But their self-reliance might end up giving us new ideas for technology, too. Some communities are adopting wind and solar power, learning how to harness electricity without relying on the usual sources. And their roundabout solutions often mean new inventions, like special skylights that can direct daylight to fill a room. They may have to work harder to bring new technologies into their lives, but it doesn't seem impossible that one day we'll be taking bits of technology from the Amish, and not the other way around.