This is one of the most exciting “artifacts” at the WaterWorks Museum -- our almost-100-year-old steam powered pumping engine, which once helped provide drinking water to Louisville. It’s a wonderful piece of industrial history! In the U.S., only a few steam pumps of this kind remain intact.
The pump is housed in Louisville Water’s River Pumping Station #3, where Museum visitors can see it on tour. Though no longer functional, the steam pump continues to dominate this space, dwarfing its neighbors, the modern electric pumps whose high capacity long ago rendered it an antique. The pump stands over 100 feet tall (only the top half is visible in the photo above), and boasts massive flywheels, spiral staircases, beautiful brass dials, and an array of other vintage mechanisms. Imagine how all the parts worked together!
You might expect such an old machine to have been very loud – but it wasn’t. Workers nicknamed this pump the “Quiet Giant.” Other than whirring parts and hissing steam, it didn’t make much noise. It was alive with human activity though, as engineers moved up and down the stairs, back and forth across the decks, checking pressure, and oiling parts. It took lots of people to keep this pump running smoothly! This is quite a contrast to today: you’ll hear the roar of the electric pumps as soon as you enter the station, but probably won’t see any workers around. The pumps are now monitored by computer, from a control room offsite, meaning very few people work at the station on a daily basis.
Seeing these vintage and modern technologies side by side creates great teaching opportunities! Use your visit to the WaterWorks Museum to start a discussion about the Industrial Revolution, the physical properties of steam and how it is used to drive machinery, or how changes in technology continue to impact our lives today. We hope you’ll visit soon, and bring us all your questions!