The Hydraulic Ram: Pumping Water Uphill

The hydraulic ram made pumping water easy and inexpensive.

| October 2012

First, a riddle. What do a hydraulic ram and a hot air balloon have in common?

It all started in England in about 1772. In a 1775 letter to a Dr. Franklin (Ben?), a man named John Whitehurst wrote: “Dear Sir, Presuming the mode of raising water by its momentum may be new and useful to many individuals, induces me to send you the enclosed plan and description of a work, executed in the year 1772, in Oulton, in Cheshire, the feat of Philip Egerton, Esq., for the service of a brew house and other offices, and is found to answer effectually.”

The system wasn’t automatic, in that it required the opening of a tap to start the water flowing. However, the tap was located in a kitchen where “the consumption of water is very considerable (and) that water is frequently drawing from morning until night all the days of the year.”

On June 4, 1783, in an unrelated event in Paris, the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Jacques, sent up the world’s first hot air balloon. A few months later, the brothers demonstrated their balloon at a command performance for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the Palace of Versailles. On that trip, the balloon carried a sheep, a rooster and a duck. Shortly thereafter, a science teacher and an army officer became the first human balloonists when they flew a distance of 5.5 miles over Paris.

Pumping water uphill

In about 1796, Joseph Montgolfier applied his inventive talents to the problem of pumping water. The Frenchman added a water-operated valve in place of Whitehurst’s manual tap. That made the device self-acting, and, as long as the water supply remained steady, the hydraulic ram was virtually a perpetual motion machine. Today, Montgolfier is credited with being the father of both manned flight and the hydraulic ram.

The fame of the simple pump that could push water uphill using only the energy of falling water spread, and several were imported into the U.S. In 1809, New Yorkers Joseph Cerneau and Stephen Hallett patented the first American water ram, but it wasn’t until the 1840s that use of the device began to spread. Hydraulic rams were mostly used to supply water to individual farms and homes, but there were larger installations. One firm claimed, in an 1852 ad, that the “Birkinbine Patent Improved Hydraulic Ram” had pumped 20,000 gallons of water a day to the town of Naples, N.Y. The Rife hydraulic engine was said to be capable of pumping water as much as 200 feet vertically in quantities as high as 50,000 gallons per day. Rife Hydraulic Engine Mfg. Co. remains in business today, making hydraulic ram pumps in Nanticoke, Pa.