Omnia Mechanical Group

571 Timpson Place Bronx, NY 10455

Phone: 212-534-2500

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The More You Know: The History of Water Pumps

Nowadays in New York City, we take for granted the many pumps that transport water for drinking, washing, cleaning, and industrial applications. But the history of the water pump as we know it is relatively short, with many innovations occurring in the recent past. Here’s a brief history of water pumps, an invention without which modern society would be totally different.

Precursors to the Water Pump

Not-quite-pumps to move water

Early civilizations knew water was vital for survival, but transporting this precious liquid posed many challenges. Man created several early devices before the formal development of the pump in an attempt to make water easier to obtain.

For example, Mesopotamians living in what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey invented a type of lever that was used on river and stream banks. It looked similar to a see-saw. On one end was a bucket, and on the other, a counterweight. When someone operated the lever, the bucket would dip into the source to fetch water, and the counterweight on the other side of the lever would pull the bucket out once it was full.

The Ancient Egyptians had a similar mechanism called a shadoof, which they used at the edge of the Nile River. While it was more of a well-type bucket system, it wasn’t quite a pump… yet.

Ancient Greece and the Archimedes Screw

The first true pump

The first real pump in known history was invented by the Ancient Greeks around 200 BC. The famous mathematician Archimedes came up with a device that changed the world as we know it now: the screw pump. Historians believe the invention came out of a need to remove bilge water from The Syracusia, a naval warship that also transported goods and provided luxury travel for a select few.

A revolving screw-shaped blade inside a large cylinder was cranked by hand. It transferred water from low levels to higher ones as the screw turned. Not only could this type of rudimentary pump transport liquid, but it was also soon used to move grain and coal.

The force pump

Ctesibius, a Greek inventor and mathematician living in Alexandria, Egypt around the same time as Archimedes, is credited with creating another type of early pump that was equally innovative. Also a hand-operated device, it used two cylinders to pull water upwards using pressure in what is probably the first piston-type pump ever seen. In fact, it was even more efficient than a piston pump because the two cylinders alternated their up-and-down movement, meaning the transport of water was continuous. There was no break in between each stroke like there is with a single-piston pump.

Rebirth of the Pump After the Dark Ages

Many innovations after regression

After the fall of the Roman Empire, innovation in science and mathematics ceased and even regressed during the Dark Ages (AKA Middle Ages or Medieval Period). It wasn’t until the Enlightenment of the 18th century that pumps as we know them began to see real development.

However, before that, inventors made steps toward modern pump technology:

  • 1475 – Italian engineer Francesco di Georgio likely created the first idea of a centrifugal pump (see below) in his drawings.
  • 1588 – Another Italian engineer, Agustino Ramelli, described a sliding vane water pump in his book of inventions.
  • 1593 – An early gear pump was developed by Frenchman Nicolas Grollier de Servière.
  • 1636 – Pappenheim invented the first rotary gear pump.
  • 1650 – Otto von Guericke created the piston vacuum pump, notable for using leather washers to prevent leakage.
  • 1675 – Englishman Sir Samuel Moreland patented the packed plunger pump.
  • 1687 – Denis Papin, born in France, built the first real centrifugal pump using centrifugal force and a vane mechanism to move water at rapid speeds.
  • 1738 – Daniel Bernoulli’s famous equation for fluid mechanics was derived.
  • 1792 – James Watt, known for steam engine innovation, invented an oscillating piston machine.
  • 1790 – Steam power was first used to drive pumps.
  • 1845 – The first steam-pumping engine was used to power boats.
  • 1849 – The first all-metal pump was built.
  • 1851 – The curved vane centrifugal pump was introduced by John Appold of Great Britain.
  • 1859 – The diaphragm pump was invented.

Curious about early pump use in New York City? The first pump ever used in the city was installed in a well built in front of the fort at Bowling Green, near what is now Battery Park. Used in the early days of the British occupation of New York after they seized it from the Dutch, the well pump provided water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning to residents of the area. Interestingly, it was a love of tea, brought to the colonies via Dutch importation, that largely drove the search for water in those early days.

Modern Pump Technology

Types of water pumps in use today

Over the next one hundred years following the American Civil War, pump technology continued to evolve, primarily refining existing types of pumps to meet the needs of growing cities with skyscrapers and the innovations born of the Industrial Revolution. Rather than being hand-cranked or steam-powered, pumps began to be driven by hydraulics, coal, and eventually, electricity.

Many of the earliest pump types are still in use today, albeit in more sophisticated forms. Archimedes’ screw pump was developed into the spiral pump, which is used for irrigation and land drainage. Because the mechanics are simple, repairs are easy, even in poverty-stricken areas, which makes its wide-scale use feasible. Likewise, the sliding vane and gear pumps are quite popular. They are used less for moving water than for petroleum and other fluids with viscosities different from that of water.

Of course, you’ve probably seen piston pumps in action today. And the centrifugal pump is perhaps the most common of all. It’s present in many New York City buildings, moving tap water and feeding boilers to keep the city going.

Even Modern Pumps Need Maintenance and Repair

Call Antler Pumps

Although modern pumps have come a long way since the days of Archimedes, they still need care. Regular maintenance and repair can extend the life of your pumps and help prevent problems with corrosion, clogging, and other results of wear and tear.

Don’t wait until you have a pump failure that disrupts your property. Call Antler Pumps at 212-534-2500, or use our online message form to set up an appointment today. We are experts at pump installation, repair, and servicing, and we’ll make sure your pumps get the attention they need.

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