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The History and Development of Ships' Bilge Pumps, 1500-1840

Thomas Oertling
Thesis: May 1984
Chair: Steffy
Nautical Archaeology Program

The fate of a ship and the lives of those on board depended on keeping the vessel afloat. Contemporary sources discuss the nature of leaks and how to find and plug them. Accounts of shipwrecks relate the effect of the disaster on those aboard and their response to the situation.

From the period of 1500-1840, the three main types of pumps used on ships were the burr pump, the section or common pump, and the chain pump. The burr pump was in general use in the 16th century, but declined in the first quarter of the 17th century in favor of the common pump. The large separate foot valve at its base must have made it difficult to repair. This type of pump can be associated with large holes cut in the mast steps of three 16th-century wrecks.

The common pump first appeared in Italy in the early 15th century. By the end of the 16th century, it was in general use on ships and remained so well into the 20th century. As long as the common pump valves were made of wood, their shape and form remained the same. In the 18th century, lead, copper and bronze were introduced into the construction of ships' pumps. Iron appeared only in the 19th century. With the use of metals, other designs of the common pump appeared. Common pumps were also used for washing decks and fighting fires.

The chain pump was used on ancient ships, but had disappeared by the Middle Ages. In the early 15th century the type was reintroduced from eastern Europe into western Europe, where it found application in the mining industry. The chain pump was in use on English ships in the late 16th century, and by the 18th century all navies except the French were using it. In the last half of the 18th century, the English redesigned this pump, which became standard equipment on all British Navy ships. In the first quarter of the 19th century, the chain pump was gradually being replaced by the common pump in all smaller and some larger warships. However, they did make a comeback in the 1830s.

All wooden ships leaked to some extent; therefore the bilge pump was the device on which the safety of the ship and its inhabitants depended.

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