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Machine de Marly

Water features form an impressive part of the gardens in the Palace of Versailles in Paris. There are fountains, cascading waterfalls, calm pools and grand canals. Close to the palace, by the two water parterres are a series of sculptures depicting wild animals in fight—a lion conquering a wild boar, a tiger subduing a bear and a bloodhound bringing down a stag. From the mouth of each of these animals water gushes into a basin. The Dragon Fountain, which is actually a python, is one of the oldest at Versailles and shoots water 27 meters high. The Latona Fountain, which illustrates the story of Latona from the Metamorphoses of Ovid, is the grandest with four levels decorated with figures of frogs, lizards and turtles.

Palace of Versailles

The Fountain of Apollo at the Palace of Versailles. Image credit:  S-F / Shutterstock.com

From the very beginning, supplying water to these fountains was a major problem for the architects. The nearest body of water, the Seine River, was located ten kilometers away, and the palace itself was nearly five hundred feet above sea level. A solution to the problem was submitted by a young and ambitious lawyer named Arnold de Ville, who despite his lack of formal training in the field of engineering had successfully built a hydraulic machine to draw water from a river and supply Château de Modave back in his homeland in Belgium. de Ville submitted a similar design for the Palace of Versailles, only this was to be several times larger in magnitude.

Louis XIV was so impressed by the de Ville’s plan that he entrusted him with the development of a machine on the Seine to supply not only the gardens of Versailles, but also those of the Chateau of Marly, which was then under construction.

The Latona Fountain.

The Latona Fountain. Image credit: Eli Sagor/Flickr

In 1681, construction of this unprecedented hydraulic pump called Machine de Marly began at a site 7 km north of the Château de Versailles. With the help of master carpenter and mechanic Rennequin Sualem, de Ville constructed a huge machine consisting of 14 paddle wheels of 30 feet in diameter, the axles of which have two cranks. One moved the pistons which pushed the water into the pipes and raised it up to the first reservoir. The other moved a system of crossarm levers which ran the length of the mountain up to the highest reservoir. These crossarms pumped the water from the lower reservoir to the upper and from there to the top of the tower which was at the summit of the mountain. From there the water ran over a large aqueduct by gravity towards the Palace of Versailles and the Chateau of Marly.

Construction of the machine, which was partially submerged in the Seine River, required more than 100,000 tons of wood, 17,000 tons of iron and 800 tons of lead and as much cast iron. The wood used in the construction of the platform and the wheels of the machine, and for the dikes between the islands and for the buildings came from the surrounding forests. The iron for rods came from the Nivernais and Champagne and most of the cast iron pipe was produced in Normandy.

Machine de Marly

The Machine de Marly by Pierre-Denis Martin, circa 1772.

Machine de Marly

The Machine de Marly

At full capacity, Machine de Marly pumped an average of 3,200 cubic meters of water per day, which was much more than what the entire city of Paris utilized in a day. Still it was not enough for the fountains of Versailles. Even at half pressure, these fountains required at least four times as much water. So fountain-rationing was necessary.

Because of the complexity of the pumps, maintaining it became a major headache. A full staff of sixty was required to make sure the wheels were turning and water was being delivered to Versailles and Marly. The machine suffered from frequent breakdowns and often required costly repairs.

The Machine de Marly worked for 133 years, until it was upgraded in 1817 to a capacity of 20,000 cubic meters of water per day. Much of it was rebuilt, and subsequently the paddle-wheel pumps were replaced by steam engines. By the mid-19th century, the original structure had almost totally disappeared. The overgrown walls of the mid-slope reservoir are visible on the hillside, just adjacent to the cobblestone path that runs straight up the incline. A couple of buildings, two administration and one that housed the steam-driven pumping machine from 1825, can still be seen next to the river as well.

Machine de Marly

3D model of the Machine de Marly. Image credit: Dpendery/Wikimedia Commons 

Machine de Marly

3D model of the Machine de Marly. Image credit: Dpendery/Wikimedia Commons

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