A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How did fountains work before the invention of electric pumps?

March 7, 1997

Dear Cecil:

I love fountains — especially the fact that they were installed in very old homes and public places before the advent of electricity. We all know modern fountains recirculate water with the aid of electric pumps, but how did these fountains of yesteryear operate?

Cecil replies:

Conceptually it was easy. Of course I guess conceptually the creation of the universe wasn't all that complicated. Take the fountains of Rome, probably the most famous in the world. In ancient times someone realized there were lots of water sources outside Rome that were at a higher elevation than the city itself. Ergo, if one could convey the water from the sources to the town, one would have water pressure (and if desired, fountains) galore. One then had the mere technical detail of building ten miles of more or less watertight aqueduct with a constant slope of 1 in 320 using the resources available in 312 BC. Plus ten more aqueducts in later years, the longest extending 56 miles, bringing in a total of 38 million gallons of water per day. Plus an elaborate municipal plumbing system in which the runoff from one fountain fed others downhill from it and ultimately wound up in the sewers. Result: 1,200 fountains (and 800 baths) that couldn't be shut off. (Engineers to Roman senate: Get it to stop? We had enough trouble getting it to start! It's only 312 BC! You want freaking miracles, wait till the birth of Christ!) Your poet says, ah, the fountains, the gushing water, they are so beautiful! To which your plumber says, yeah, bub, it was either that or burst the pipes.

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