Today, we speak of bilge water and exploration. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
What was the most important
supply item on board a sailing ship? Was it canvas?
Spare masts? Food? Water? Texas marine historian
Thomas Oertling flatly states that a compact,
efficient pump was most important of all.
Just imagine, if you can, sailing a thousand miles
from any shore and finding you have a loose seam
below the waterline. Imagine riding a wooden vessel
with the ocean seeping in faster than it should. We
call that leakage bilge water; and bilge remains a
nasty word even today.
After Columbus, voyages stretched into months, and
bilge water became terrifying stuff indeed. History
books don't say when the suction pump replaced
bailing buckets. It was invented 60 years before
Columbus, but as a laboratory curiosity. Miners put
it to work on a different kind of bilge a
generation after Columbus. They found they could
drive their shafts deeper into the earth once they
could get rid of the water that seeped in.
Those first suction pumps were pretty simple --
long tubes with plungers down the middle. You
pulled the plunger and it sucked water up from
below -- like a hypodermic needle in reverse. The
plunger had a leather flap valve. It let water
through when you pushed it down, but the flap
sealed it tight when you lifted it up. A laborer
pushed the plunger up and down, and water flowed
But in 1982 we finally found a shipboard pump that
predated those mining pumps. Marine archaeologists
dove into a wreck off Molasses Reef in the British
West Indies. They found a four-inch lead plunger
with valve holes in it. It was part of a suction
pump installed right after Columbus's first voyage.
This mute remnant tells a story about technology
and the world around it -- a story you can't find
in written records. The suction pump had little
purpose when the world began opening up to
exploration. Intellectual play, not necessity,
drove its invention. Now, all at once, miners and
shipbuilders alike pressed it into the service of
an expanding world.
The simple suction pump was a subtle machine. It's
far easier to understand it than it ever was to
invent it. We're reminded of the nursery rhyme of
the kingdom and the horseshoe nail. The kingdoms of
the Western Hemisphere and of the subterranean
world both depended on the suction pump. This small
voyage of somebody's inventive mind made far
grander voyages possible.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds