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:

1858 "Wooden Pipe Superseded," Syracuse Daily Courier, April 18, 1860, Page 2.  Bituminous gas pipe invented in Paris.

1872 "Water, Water-Pipes, and Water-Filters," The New York Times, April 20, 1873, Page 5.
Mentions laminated wood pipe.

1886 "Water Pipes," by A. H. Howland, Read December 4, 1886, Proceedings of the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia 6(1):55-69. (December, 1886).  Arthur Henshaw Howland developed many water works in the 1880s and 1890s.

1887 "Water Pipes," by A. H. Howland, Read at the Engineers Club of Philadelphia, The American Engineer 13:136 (April 20, 1887) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Reprint of 1886 article.

2017 "$300 Billion War Beneath the Street: Fighting to Replace America’s Water Pipes," by Hiroko Tabuchinov, The New York Times, November 10, 2017.

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:

1924 "Choosing a Waterworks Pumping Engine," Henry Foster Dever, Doctoral Dissertation in Electrical Engineering, Northwestern University
A study of pumping engines with special reference to the requirements of the City of Evanston.

1975 "The Introduction of the American Water Ram, ca. 1843-1850," by Arthur Channing Downs, Jr., Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 7(4):56-103 (1975)

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. 

High Pressure Water Delivery for Fire Service.  

Water Meters

Water Motors
1872 Patent No. 131,616, September 24, 1872, Isaac Hyde, Oakland, California, assignor to Oscar J. Backus, San Francisco, California

1873 Reissued Letters patent No. 5,590, October 7, 1873

1874 Patent No. 146,120 January 6, 1874, to Oscar J. Backus of San Francisco, California.

1875 "Improved Water Motor," Scientific American 32:115 February 20, 1875.

1875 Patent No. 171,256, December 21, 1875, to Oscar J. Backus of Newark, New Jersey.

1875"A Miniature Water Wheel," Springville Journal (Springville, New York), May 1, 1875, Page 4.

1883 Backus Water Motor Co., v Tuerk and others, 17 Fed. 350, July 10, 1883, Circuit Court, Northern District of Illinois

[1884] Backus Water Motor Co. Catalog

1905 Oscar Jerome Backus, Born January 9, 1830 in Steuben County, New York, died March 20, 1905 at Oakland, California

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


1980 The Architecture and Engineering of Elevated Water Storage Structures: 1870-1940, by Carol Ann Dubie

Standardization of Fire 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 Morris A. Pierce