They came before sliced bread, before airplanes and vacuum cleaners, before safety razors and radio receivers. They preceded the pushpin and the paperclip, the teabag and the tractor. Their rumble rumbled years before highways latticed across the country, and their rumble still rumbles today — tearing through concrete and jabbing at blacktop on the busiest urban thoroughfares, the tree-lined cul-de-sacs of suburbia and beyond.
Jackhammers, or pneumatic drills, are one of the most common sources of manmade noise pollution. Though officially patented in 1894, the tool existed in various forms as far back as the 1840s, the very dawn of the Second Industrial Revolution. In other words, they’ve been keeping people up for a heck of a long time.
The jackhammer fulfills a simple promise: If you smash something a bunch of times, it’s going to break. Essentially a combination of a hammer and a chisel, your average pneumatic model uses compressed air to force a pile driver against a drill bit, pounding said bit into the ground. The air, usually at a pressure ten times greater than what you’re breathing right now, is supplied by an external compressor. It flows through a circuit of tubes until it reaches the pile driver; once the drill bit hits whatever it’s there to hit, a valve inside that circuit reverses position, allowing the air to move in the opposite direction. This process repeats itself as many as 25 times per second, or an astonishing 1,500 times per minute.
The pneumatic drill’s base components are easily adaptable to equipment of larger sizes and more ambitious purposes. Excavators and backhoes are often outfitted with large jackhammers that use a hydraulic motor to power a sealed pneumatic system (hydraulic fluid alone would not generate a sufficient strike speed). Compressed air can also be transported across large distances with great ease, which was particularly advantageous to the miners and tunnelers who were the jackhammer’s earliest adopters.
According to Henry Sturgis Drinker’s comprehensive history, Tunneling, Explosive Compounds, and Rock Drills, the original “percussion drill” was patented in 1849 by Jonathan Couch. His initial device pushed a drill bit through the piston of a steam engine, which sent it flying into a rock wall. There was just one snag: Engineers at the time had no means of getting steam from the top to the bottom of a mine. So, in the early 1850s, Couch’s assistant, Joseph Fowle, designed a version that used compressed air instead. In 1894, Charles Brady King patented the hammer-and-chisel jackhammer we know and love today.
The annals of history are mum as to how noisy King’s device was, though it seems safe to say they were at least as ear-splitting as modern drills. According to the Centers for Disease Control, modern jackhammers emit roughly 110 decibels at two meters — loud enough to put operators at risk of permanent hearing loss if they don’t use wear protective gear. Stick in a pair of earplugs, however, and the noise goes down to less dangerous levels.
“As long as you wear your PPEs, you’re good,” said Andy Perez, a jackhammer-operator for Hallen Construction, referring to OSHA-mandated Personal Protective Equipment. “It’s the vibration that causes problems — I know guys, their knees give out, their arms, their shoulders. But put in the PPEs, and you can’t hear a thing.”
Quieter models have been created. In 2000, the United States Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory released a helium driven jackhammer called the Raptor. It had a few improvements, including a muzzling system, that lessened the noise it produced to 87 decibels. But it never saw the light of day. In 2011, equipment-maker Hilti released an electric model they say bores through concrete faster than a standard pneumatic and clocks in at 100 decibels. They've sold some models, but breaking into the construction business is harder than carving through a city street with a chisel.
For those of us living or working within earshot, the risks are more on the psychological side — stress, anxiety, loss of sleep — and prolonged exposure to more than 85 decibels may also cause temporary or permanent damage. This means, for instance, that if one is writing an article about jackhammers in a cafe adjacent to some serious roadwork, one had better not stay in that cafe for more than a few hours.
Construction work is a particularly insidious nuisance for city dwellers, racking up 62 percent (33,533) of noise complaints in New York City from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015. New York has a detailed noise code that forbids construction before seven a.m. or after six p.m., though after-hours work is permissible with special authorization. Contractors are also required to design and comply with noise mitigation plans. Typical strategies involve the erection of noise barriers, the consolidation of especially noisy activities and the re-routing of truck traffic to non-residential areas.
Of course, many of these strategies are simply fruitless in high-growth residential areas — say, Brooklyn — where noise is part of the bargain. For some, the sound of jackhammers at dawn is a convenient alarm; for others, it means hours of lost sleep or work, another day spent in a half-wakeful stupor.
“Everybody around us complains,” lamented Perez, handing over a pair of Howard Leight earplugs before getting back to work. “You can keep those.”