An Open and Shut History of Valves

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Valves aren’t something most people think about every day, but they are all around us. They are in our homes, at work, in our cars, and in the doctor’s office. They are highly useful and versatile pieces of technology that control the flow of gasses and liquids. Modern valves have electronic and pneumatic controls that adjust automatically by sensing the flow of materials, and they are quite advanced compared to the manual ones that must be activated by hand. From their beginnings in ancient Rome to the part they played in the Industrial Revolution, the history of valves has played a part in shaping humanity for centuries.

The Ancient Beginnings

From the beginning, man knew how to divert water and drive it where needed. They used stones or branches to direct the flow where they wanted it to go. It was the Romans who first invented the control valve, which they used as part of their greatest accomplishment—the aqueducts. The aqueduct system helped the Romans deliver fresh water to the city via pipes and valves. Even though water was plentiful, those in power wanted to control the amount of water coming in to prevent illegal tapping or the system.

Dating as far back as the 1st century BC, the Romans used lead piping to distribute the water to cities throughout the empire. The design of their ancient valves is similar to the modern plug valve we use today. Valve bodies were made of bronze with an inline configuration and cylindrical chamber into which a cylindrical plug could be inserted to stop the flow of water. The techniques used by the Romans are the same ones used today. They inserted the valve into the pipeline and soldered it in place on either side of the valve, just as we do today.

Advances Over the Years

The history of valves was almost never written. The fall of the Roman Empire led to the decay of the infrastructure they implemented. Many advances and technological innovations were lost to history, and almost nothing changed for centuries. While the Middle Ages saw no real changes or advances in valve technology, the Renaissance saw the addition of hydraulic valves to aid the building of canals and irrigation systems.

Leonardo Da Vinci, always inventing beyond his era, left behind several drawings of advanced valve technology. The modern history of valves starts at the industrial revolution. In 1705, Thomas Newcomen invented the steam machine, which needed valves. These valves would hold back the steam to build up intense pressure in order to actuate the machine. As technology advanced, so did the valve. Today, valves are used in anesthesia machines, ventilators, oil refineries, and countless other industrial and lifesaving applications.

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