How fountains worked in the days before electricity

When watching films that are set in a time before there was electricity, I would sometimes see public fountains and would idly wonder how they worked. I knew that they had to be driven by gravity, with the water coming from a source like a tower that was higher than the. fountain, the way that many of us still get water nowadays, from city water towers. But how did they fill the water towers in those days?

This article explains.

Ancient Rome received all of its water (according to Encarta, about 38 million gallons a day) through a system of aqueducts. All water flowed to the city by gravity, but because it was arriving from surrounding hills, it could be stored in large cisterns very similar in concept to today’s water towers (the main difference is that cisterns are filled from the top).

Water flowed from the cisterns either through pipes to individual houses or to public distribution points. Fountains served both decorative and functional purposes, since people could bring their buckets to the fountain to collect water. The cisterns provided the height needed to generate water pressure for the fountains to spray. As discussed in How Water Towers Work, a foot of height generates 0.43 pounds per square inch (psi) of water pressure, so a cistern does not have to be that tall to develop enough pressure to give a fountain a reasonable display.

The question that the article does not address is what happens to the water after it comes out of the fountain. It cannot be pumped back up without electricity or having people and animals haul it back up to a height. Did they just let it soak into the ground?

While those old fountains must have been nice to look at, they do seem to be a wasteful use of precious water that had come a long way using aqueducts, themselves a magnificent engineering feat.


  1. lurker753 says

    They couldn’t stop flow -- they didn’t have valves for pipes, and a blocked channel simply overflows. So yes, unused water just flowed away -- not soaking into the ground, but actively flushing the sewers -- which were designed with this in mind, and so from the Roman way of thinking, not wasted at all.

    Some years (decades?) ago, there was an exhibition of water use at the British Museum -- including a stunning poster-sized bar graph (whose equivalent I have just tried -- and failed -- to find online) showing that the Romans used ~10x modern cities per capita -- though not including modern industrial use.

  2. enkidu says

    “What happen to the water after it comes out of the fountain”
    That’s a great question. No, they didn’t just let it soak into the ground. Excess water was often distributed by pipes to private residences and other locations, where people could get their drinking water. I saw just such a system in Nimes a few years ago. The rest would find its way to the sewage system, where it helped to move along the movements (as it were). I also saw such a functioning system in Guilin China. In Rome and other larger cities, the biggest consumers of water were the baths.
    My conclusion is that the fountains may have looked pretty, although most would just have been a spout running into a basin, perhaps decorated with a dolphin, they also served practical purpose for the locals. Your average plebian, on the top floor of an insula, would have wanted a source of water nearby.
    There was not so much pressure on the hydrological system either, the population was relatively small, and the climate had been stable for about 400 years up until the middle of the 2nd century CE.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    I betcha the old fountains had some sort of shut-off valve to prevent water wastage (e.g., after dark).

    Prob’ly used leather for washers/gaskets.

  4. JM says

    Water wastage mattered less then you would think, the Romans couldn’t easily shut off the aqueducts. The aqueducts were not sealed so shutting it off at Rome just spilled the water out somewhere along the way and without high speed communications they couldn’t shut if off at the source without a long lead time. Since the inflow was constant they just left the fountains on.
    They did have valves but they mostly were used to cut off private homes, either when water ran short or when they didn’t pay up. Water to the public fountains was cut off only for repairs. For too much of the population the fountains was the only source of water for them to be closed.

  5. says

    If I recall correctly, the grand fountains at Versailles were fed from a capture basin on a hill several miles away. They only turned them on when there was a party or the king was going for a walk in the gardens. I don’t know about now but I saw them operate when I was a kid.

  6. Hedi Nemeth says

    Switzerland has both plenty of altitude and plenty of water (when it isn’t frozen). It has also been inhabited for a a very long time. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s I marveled at the many fountains, in cities, at street corners, in neighborhoods -- all over the place. Oftentimes the spout came out of a hillside, so it was clear the source was a rivulet on the hillside above. The basins all had drains, so the water continued, unseen, on its downward path. Most of the fountains were beautiful.

    I was surprised when I went back and did some hiking in the Alps in September of 2022, to find fountains even in the mountains. They were not ornate. One pipe simple stuck out of a boulder at chest height, with no basin to catch the flow. Other fountains directed the arc of water into a trough, clearly for the use of farm animals. (There were dairy cows all over the mountain interspersed with housing and roads and meadows and fences and trails.) The troughs drained back into rivulets that continued on down the mountain. My Swiss hiking companion stopped to drink at these fountains. Astonished, I asked if the water was potable. She assure me that it was…unless there was a sign stating “Do not drink” (in German). I never once saw a sign saying “Do not Drink”.

    In the days when people traveled by beast of burden, farm animals were everywhere, and houses didn’t have plumbing, having a fountain at a useable height was a great convenience. It was civilized.

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