Omnia Mechanical Group

571 Timpson Place Bronx, NY 10455

Phone: 212-534-2500

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The Earliest Pump Designs: A Look at Pumps in Ancient Civilizations

In many modern societies, access to water is taken for granted. People open a tap and expect clean, drinkable water to flow out. Still, in many countries, access to fresh drinking water is a luxury; some areas do not have the infrastructure and devices other communities take for granted.

Pumps play a pivotal role in water access and treatment, and have for centuries. While not as sophisticated as modern designs, ancient pumps were crucial for supplying access to or collecting water, from the Shaduf of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qanat of ancient Persia to the 18th-century invention of James Watt and further 19th-century advances. Discover the unique history of pumps in ancient civilizations.

Ancient Pumps: The Old World to the New

The Shaduf

One of the earliest water-lifting devices dates back to 3,000 BC. The shaduf is the first example of a hand-operated pump. Ancient civilizations used the device to lift water from canals, cisterns, rivers, and wells.

The device was of simple construction and resembled a tall and narrow seesaw. A long, tapering pole sat atop a horizontal crossbar secured to two vertical posts. The structure was often made of reeds and rope. On one end of the tapering pole were a rope and a container, and on the other was a counterweight.

The operator pulled down on the rope of the tapering pole, submerging the container. When the operator released or loosened their grip on the rope, the counterweight lifted the water-filled container to the surface.

Communities could construct a series of shadufs, one above the other, to improve lifting rate and irrigation speed. A single shaduf can irrigate 0.1 ha in 12 hours.

It is unclear who invented the shaduf, or even when the first device appeared. All that is certain is that the tool was in use across many ancient civilizations, including Egypt. Still, the earliest recorded use of this first version of ancient pumps was in Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago.

The Lùlu

In ancient China, engineers had problems lifting or extracting water from deep wells. While the society knew the benefits of groundwater, they did not have a way to access it until the Lùlu.

The Lùlu comprised a wheel, axle, hand crank, and ropes. Physical evidence of the device did not appear until 1973, despite being invented during the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), as is evidenced on pictorial stones. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the tool underwent several innovations, including the replacement of manpower with horsepower and the inclusion of multiple containers for lifting water and ore.

As archaic as the designs of the Lùlu and Shaduf may seem, both tools still exist today. Many farming and agricultural communities use these affordable and accessible designs to help with irrigation and water supply.

The Hydraulic Endless Screw

During the time of Archimedes (287 to 212 BC), the Hellenic engineer and mathematician described the hydraulic endless screw, which was an upgrade from previous ancient pumps and a mechanical device. Whether Archimedes invented the device is debatable, but several ancient scholars credit him.

The tool is made of flexible wicker or willow branches used as a curved wooden shaft. One branch sits on top of another to create a screw that rotates within another wooden pipe. The device sits at a 30° slope in the water. As the shaft or screw rotates, water gets trapped in its curves or grooves, moving toward the upper opening.

The Force Pump

An engineer and mathematician, Ktesivius of Alexandria (285 to 222 BC), invented the force pump, a more polished and versatile water-lifting device. The pump comprised two cylinders; inside were two pistons that moved along two connecting rods attached to a single lever.

The force pump was versatile and used in many applications. There is evidence of the pump’s use in basement pumping, bilge-water pumping, fire extinguishing, mining, and water jets.

Via his work on ancient pumps, Ktesivius contributed a great deal to the modern evolution of pump designs. Unfortunately, his writings did not survive, and all that is known about his inventions is from references by other writers, inventors, engineers, and academics.

The Chain Pump

Philon of Byzantium, an engineer, invented the chain pump in Hellenistic Alexandria. The device used a waterwheel with pots attached to a chain. The chain runs through a tube separated by circular discs. One end of the tube sits in a water source. As the chain circulates through the tube, water collects in the pots and is drawn up the pipe.

The chain pump appeared throughout the Mediterranean region and parts of Europe for centuries. Additionally, by 1 AD, the tool appeared in China as dragon backbones. Many ancient pumps appeared in various forms under other names.


The first windmill appeared in Persia between 500 and 900 AD. While designed for water pumping and grain grinding, the first use was water pumping. Unfortunately, no drawings exist of the first design, so its specific mechanisms and design are unknown.

Some believe China is the birthplace of the vertical axis windmill, but its first documented account of the device did not occur until the 12th century. The Persian windmill is the earliest evidence-backed windmill. Still, the tool is part of many countries’ histories.

Piston Pumps and Vacuum Pumps

Many engineers built upon the ancient pumps of other inventors. Ktesivius’ piston pump design found new life in the 14th century in the writings of Mariano di Jacopo. His design included a suction pipe. The actual working model of the piston vacuum pump didn’t come along until 1650, when it was invented by Von Gueriske, a German politician and scientist.

Modern Evolutions

In the 18th century, James Watt invented the steam engine, invigorating industrialization and the development of electric and thermal motors. The rapid growth of societies and manufacturing demanded the use of and need for pumps, increasing the rate of pump evolutions, including centrifugal and positive displacement designs.

Ancient Pumps: The Remaining Connection to the Past

The Continued Role of Pumps in Society

Ancient pumps were vital to supplying civilizations with access to water from various sources. Pumps are still pivotal to delivering water throughout NYC properties. Proper maintenance and inspections ensure building pumps provide necessary water pressure to faucets, toilets, and fire suppression systems. Contact Antler Pumps at 212-534-2500 to ask about annual service contracts or to schedule an inspection.

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