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The First Fire Pump

November 16th, 2007

The history of the modern Fire Service is well documented, but did you know that the fire pump is actually a *re-invention* of an idea from ancient times?

The first force-pump mentioned in recorded history is a pump designed by Ctesibius of Alexandria who died in 222BC. Unfortunately, all of this great inventor’s work was destroyed when the great library of Alexandria burned (there’s an irony for you) and we only know about Ctesibius through the surviving works of Vitruvius, Athenaeus, and Philo of Byzantium.

The idea of the force-pump was not lost however. Surviving examples of wooden force-pumps from the very fringes of the Roman civilization in Silchester, England were built into the center of discarded wine casks. These were placed into a well at about 15 feet depth and could pump 3 gpm. Although this may seem like a terribly low capacity to a modern firefighter, they would certainly have provided water to help fight fires when the only alternative was hauling up buckets of water by hand.

More examples of the Roman ‘double-piston force-pumps’ survive from the Roman settlement of Wederath in Belgium from about 300AD. The Roman design incorporated two lead-lined cylinders with pistons.

The wooden pistons were sealed with leather. They were moved oppositely up and down, presumably with a common lever arm. The valves used were lead-weighted leather flaps. The upwardly moving piston sucked water into the cylinder and the downwardly moving one pressed the water into the valve chamber, through the rise pipe and up to the well-head.

With the decline of big cities after the fall of Rome, many useful inventions were forgotten, no longer needed, or simply too complex to build and maintain in daily life.

The water pump was ‘reinvented’ in the 1500s.

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