A Brief History of Pump Technology

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No matter whether you are a physicist, engineer or simply a person interested in knowing how the physical world works, it is a good idea to learn the basics of pump technology through the ages. Humans throughout time have developed pumps to better their daily lives as well as promote industry and improve society. From Pompeiian suction pumps to modern Busch vacuum pumps, the history of pumps can be wide-ranging and fascinating.

The Suction Pump

Written records and fragments of remains show that the Romans used suction pumps in the Italian city of Pompeii to move different liquids. This type of pump uses a piston to pull liquid into a chamber through a pipe or network of pipes. It operates by way of atmospheric pressure and partial vacuums. In the 13th century, the engineer Al-Jazari wrote about suction pumps, suction pipes and double action suction pumps in his famous text ‘The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.’ He stated that he was inspired by the siphons used by the Byzantines. In the 17th century, Galileo was given the task of discovering why suction pumps were unable to move water past certain heights. Galileo corresponded with other scientists to solve the case. Eventually, Evangelista Torricelli concluded that the presence of a vacuum combined with the maximum weight supported by atmospheric pressure within a pipe created the limit of a suction pump.

The Vacuum Pump

In 1650, a German scientist and inventor named Otto von Guericke established the physics of vacuums through the Magdeburg Experiment. The experiment used teams of horses pulling on two copper hemispheres which had the air pumped out of the middle; the horses were unable to separate the hemispheres due to the vacuum and atmospheric pressure between them. Otto von Guericke developed the first vacuum pump using the results of his experiment. Later, the physicists and polymaths Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Heinrich Geissler would individually improve upon von Guericke’s vacuum pump. Without these important developments in vacuum pump technology, our modern understanding of physics and electricity would not be where they are today.