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.

Water Treatment - From Reservoir to Home (click to enlarge)



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

2017 Graphene-based sieve turns seawater into drinking water, by Paul Rincon Science editor, BBC News website

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:

1701 An engine of great service to bore elms or other trees to make pipes to conveigh water, and for other uses, by Isaac de Caus, from New and rare inventions of water-works,

1858 "Wooden Pipe Superseded," Syracuse Daily Courier, April 18, 1860, Page 2.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

1861 "Gutta Percha Service Pipe," American Gas-Light Journal 2:348 (May 15, 1861).
This material is superseding lead in some places, owing to its freedom from impurity, and from the effects of cold weather, and corrosion.

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

1883 Pocket Companion, Containing Telegraphic Code, Tables of Standard Dimensions of Wrought Iron Pipe, Tubes, &c, by National tube works company

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.

1888 "Welded Steel Tubes," by Thomas J. Bray, Proceedings of the Engineers' Society of Western Pennsylvania 4:6-12 (January, 1888)

1891 Pocket Companion: Containing Telegraphic Code, Tables of Standard Dimensions of Wrought Iron Pipe, Tubes, &c. as Manufactured by the National Tube Works Co. and Tables of Useful Information

1895 Facts about Pipe, Third Edition, compiled by Edmund Cogswell Convers, National Tube Works Company

1897 Report on Relative Merits of Wrought Iron & Steel Pipes to the National Tube Works Co, by Henry Marion Howe

1921 "National" Modern Welded Pipe: From Iron Ore to Finished Product, by National Tube Co

1922 "Some Observations Concerning Wood Pipe," by J. W. Ledoux, Journal of the American Water Works Association 9(4):549-569 (July, 1922)

1945 Principio to Wheeling 1715-1945:  A Pageant of Iron and Steel, by Earl Chapin May
Pages 192-199:  Chapter 26:  Hearne Originates Welded Steel Pipe (1888)

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

Ductile Iron Pipe Research Association, includes several reference books about cast and ductile iron pipes that can be downloaded

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:

1880 Ericsson's New Hot Air Pumping Engine, Manufactured by Delamater Iron Works

1895 "A Phonograph Describes the Trouble with a Pump," The Engineering Record 32:290 (September 21, 1895)
An interesting instance of the diversified uses of which the phonograph is capable is afforded in a recent experience by the Knowles Steam Pump Works. of New York City. The company had put up one of its large pumps for the Ricks Water Company at its pumping station at Elk River, Cal. After several years of use something evidently went wrong with the pump and in the letter of advice to the works regarding the trouble, which took the form of a phonograph cylinder, advantage was taken of the cylinder to record the sounds of the pump in running, precisely as the stethoscope is used by the physician in examining the action of the heart or lungs of the human body. The manager of the water company spoke into the phonograph receiver, describing the symptoms of the ailing pump, and then moved the receiver so that the pulsation of the pump would be recorded on the wax roll. When the cylinder is put into the machine in New York the voice of the Californian is heard first giving in a clear, precise, and distinct way the symptoms of the pump, and then he asks the listener to pay attention to the pump's action. The experiment proved absolutely successful, and by means of the roll the disease was diagnosed. The proper remedy was suggested. and the pump is running once more, and the time and expense of sending an expert from the works to California was saved.

1901 The Windmill:  Its efficiency and economic use, Part I, by Edward Charles Murphy. USGS water supply paper No. 41.

1901 Public Water-supplies: Requirements, Resources, and the Construction of Works, by Frederick Eugene Turneaure, Harry Luman Russell, with a chapter on Pumping Machinery by Daniel Webster Mead

1905 Goulds Manufacturing Company, pump catalog.  Seneca Falls, New York.

1907 Pumping engines for water works, by Charles Arthur Hague

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.

Birdsill Holly and the Holly Manufacturing Company

Henry R. Worthington

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

The Bell Waterphone (used to detect leaks)

1882 "The Waterphone," by Thomas J. Bell," Scientific Proceedings of the Ohio Mechanics' Institute 2(1):42 (March, 1883)

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

Standpipes, Tanks, and Towers


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

1989 “Tanks and Towers: Waterworks in America,” by John S. Garner, from American Public Architecture European Roots and Native Expressions, Edited by Craig Zabel, and Susan S. Munshower

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

Waterworks Architecture (also see Standpipes, Tanks and Towers)

2015 Undercurrents of Urban Modernism: Water, Architecture, and Landscape in California and the American West, by Rina Cathleen Faletti, PhD Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.  History of waterworks architecture.

Artesian Wells

Electrolysis called damage to metal water pipes in many cities after the introduction of electric street railways using single-trolley electric distribution.

Water Closets and other water appliances
1884 Water-closets. A historical, mechanical, and sanitary treatise, by Glenn Brown

1992 "All the modern conveniences: American household plumbing, 1840-1870," by Maureen Ogle, Doctoral Dissertation in History, Iowa State University

1996 All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890, by Maureen Ogle

1979 "The Plumbing Paradox: American Attitudes toward Late Nineteenth-Century Domestic Sanitary Arrangements," by May N. Stone, Winterthur Portfolio 14(3):283-309 (Autumn, 1979)

Patents x

1874 Subject-matter Index of Patents for Inventions Issued by the United States from 1790 to 1873, inclusive.  Volume I

1874 Subject-matter Index of Patents for Inventions Issued by the United States from 1790 to 1873, inclusive.  Volume II

1874 Subject-matter Index of Patents for Inventions Issued by the United States from 1790 to 1873, inclusive.  Volume III

Dictionary of American Tool and Machine Patents

United States Early Inventions and "X" Patents

© 2016 Morris A. Pierce