Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography

Technology of American Water-Works

Technological improvement was a major factor in the development and widespread adoption of of water-works.  This includes major elements such as pipes and pumps, but also valves, meters, fire hydrants, filtration, and disinfection.



1977 Tastes and Odors in Water Supply - A Review, by S. D. Lin, Illinois State Water Survey

The common element in every waterworks system is that water is delivered by forcing it through a piping network.  The pipes and the forcing mechanism are the major elements in waterworks technology.

Reliable piping technology was perhaps the major obstacle in developing early waterworks systems.  Although reliable pipes were developed by the end of the Nineteenth Century, many pipes installed at that time are reaching the end of their service life, creating financial concerns in many communities.

Notable long aqueducts in American water works.

Water distribution pipes have been made from a wide variety of materials:

Water has to be forced through distribution pipes to overcome friction and deliver water to upper floors of buildings and for fire protection.  This was always done using gravity until Birdsill llolly introduced a direct pressure water supply system in 1863.  In 1888, 81.7% of American waterworks used gravity, while the remaining 18.3% relied on direct pressure. 

In order to take advantage of gravity to force water through distribution systems, the water source had to be at least as high as the highest end-user, plus enough extra to overcome friction resistance in the pipe. About one-third of known systems in 1888 were able to take advantage of favorable local topography to establish a sufficient difference in elevation for water distribution, eliminating the need for any pumping.  The remaining two-thirds relied on pumps to force water into an elevated reservoir, tank, or standpipe, from which is could be distributed to customers by gravity.  Although these concepts were distinct, systems often used more than one to insure reliability and to serve more elevated portions of a distribution network, for instance.

Water pumps have been driven by a variety of prime-movers:

Other technologies used in water works such as meters, hydrants, valves, tanks, standpipes, etc will be added, as well as information on manufacturers and contractors involved in waterworks construction.  One area of particular interest is the struggle to standardize fire hydrant hose threads.


1928 "Standardization of Fire Hose Threads," by J. H. Howland, Journal of the American Water Works Association, 19(6):679-681 (June, 1928)

2014 History of Fire Hose Coupling Thread Standardization in the United States

2016 "Portland Now Generates Electricity From Turbines Installed In City Water Pipes," by Rafi Schwartz, February 24, 2016.

Trenching Machines

1904 "Buckeye Steam Traction Ditcher," by Frank C. Perkins, Scientific American 91(11):177-178 (September 10, 1904)

1917 "Some Experiences with a Trenching Machine," by George W. Batchelder, Journal of the New England Water Works Association 31:486-489 (September, 1917)

1926 The Buckeye Traction Ditcher Company, petitioner, v. The Austin Machinery Company.  Petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit submitted by Mr. Wilbur Owen for the petitioner.  13 F.2d 697,

1988 Buckeye Steam Traction Ditcher, Hancock Historical Museum Association, Findlay, Ohio, August 5, 1988

2016 Morris A. Pierce