Omnia Mechanical Group

571 Timpson Place Bronx, NY 10455

Phone: 212-534-2500

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Pumps in History: How a Simple Device Changed the World

When you think of great innovations in the time of man, your mind may turn to locomotives, ocean liners, automobiles, and other modes of transportation that changed the world. Or perhaps you favor the appliances that make modern life easier, such as the clothes washer. However, none of these things would have been possible without the invention of the pump. The pump’s history is a fascinating one, dating back to Ancient times. Here’s a brief timeline of how several key pumps were developed and the impact they had on agriculture, transportation, and residential living.

Early Pump Prototypes

Almost-pumps and Archimedes’ screw

It took millennia for what we now call a true pump to materialize through human ingenuity and perseverance. Mesopotamians used a see-saw type of device to move buckets of water. Ancient Egyptians had the shadoof — also a bucket system — similar to a well. But none of these were as effective as the device invented by Archimedes.

Around 200 BC, the Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes, known for his contributions to geometry and physics, created the first real pump. His screw pump, probably developed for use aboard ships, used a screw-shaped blade that revolved inside a cylinder. The blade was cranked by hand to turn the screw and thereby move water from lower levels to higher ones.

As well as being able to transport liquid, Archimedes’ screw was easily adapted to move grain and coal. This model became the prototype for many positive displacement pumps as we know them today. Eventually, the screw became the centrifugal pump, a popular alternative to another type of pump invented around the same time: the force pump, invented by Ctesibius, a Greek inventor living in Alexandria, Egypt. The force pump is actually an early form of the piston pump. You’ll find piston pumps used in many industrial settings nowadays, especially in the petroleum and automotive industries.

Pumps in Agriculture

Bringing water to dry land

It’s amazing that pumps advanced at all after the fall of Rome and the Middle Ages, when science wasn’t a priority and many blossoming inventions went fallow or even regressed. It wasn’t until the 1700s that pumps took off, which is surprising, given how long they had existed prior to that.

Using pumps for agriculture was a natural application for this technology. While there are long lists of water pump advancements, two interconnected developments stand out in changing the ability to grow food and raise livestock more efficiently.

First, in 1736, H.A. Wirtz invented the spiral pump. Based on the physics of Archimedes’ screw, this coil pump was a horizontal version that could both move water to a source that needed it and remove water from areas needing drainage. The Wirtz pump had many advantages, especially for users of that time:

  • It was a simple design, making it easy to build, use, and repair.
  • It could be built cheaply from a variety of local resources and using few tools.
  • It was able to move water to a higher level than its predecessors.

The spiral or Wirtz pump facilitated a second major development in pump usage, which was a simple but revolutionary one: using animals to turn the pump rather than having humans do it by hand. This freed up labor to do other tasks and increased the amount of power behind water and other types of pumps for greater efficiency.

Pumps in Transportation

Making discovery and travel possible

The development of pumps for use beyond supplying food and water was instrumental in all kinds of world travel. From warships to the vessels that brought immigrants to the shores of New York City to the cars we drive today, pumps played a huge role.

Some of the most interesting pump innovations in this area included:

  • Continued refinement of Archimedes’ screw to pump bilge water from ships, a true lifeline if a ship was taking on water in the open ocean
  • Publication of Daniel Bernoulli’s book Hydrodynamica in 1738, which explains fluid mechanics still used today in everything from plumbing systems to aircraft flight
  • Development of the oscillating piston mechanism in the steam engine by James Watt in 1782
  • The first direct-acting steam pumping engine built in 1845 by Henry R. Worthington, which ultimately powered US naval vessels and canal boats
  • Founding of the engineering firm G & J Weir, which produced pumping equipment for vessels made in the famous British shipyards
  • Invention of the gas pump in 1885, initially used for kerosene and later for automobiles
  • First use in 1944 of ultra-quiet trim pumps in US Navy submarines for covert operations

Pumps in Residential Living

Heat, clean water, and modern convenience

You probably turn on the tap for hot water without a thought to the pump technology that went into this convenience, which was a luxury at the turn of the previous century. Pumps also figured heavily in the development of today’s domestic life. One of the most important innovations was Denis Papin’s first real centrifugal pump with vanes and standard inlets and outlets as we see in many pumps today.

The centrifugal pump continues to be tweaked, with new technology still debuting every year. The first all-metal pump was built in 1849, adding stability to pump design. Deep well pumps using turbines sprang up around 1900 for municipal water supply. In 1905, multistage centrifugal pumps hit the market, and in 1929, submersible pumps were patented. If you use a sump pump or sewage ejector pump, you can thank the development of submersible pumps.

Initially, many pumps of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were powered by steam. But with the advent of electricity, in which New York was a prominent force, they could be connected to electric motors and adapted for domestic use. The world inside New York City homes changed. Soon, pumps were used in all kinds of residential applications, including:

  • Cold and hot water circulation
  • Boiler feeding
  • Steam distribution to radiators
  • Clothes washers
  • Dishwashers
  • Fire suppression

However, even with the creation of pump controllers that automate many pump functions, we still need to service and maintain building pumps. To keep your miraculous inventions working smoothly, call Antler Pumps today at 212-534-2500 and schedule an appointment with New York City’s pump experts.


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