The History of the Water Wheel

Invention and Uses

old watermill in Buchfart, Thuringia / Getty Images 

The water wheel is an ancient device that uses flowing or falling water to create power by means of paddles mounted around a wheel. The force of the water moves the paddles, and the consequent rotation of the wheel is transmitted to machinery via the shaft of the wheel.

The first reference to a water wheel dates back to around 4000 B.C. Vitruvius, an engineer who died in 14 AD, is later credited with creating and using a vertical water wheel during Roman times. They were used for crop irrigation, for grinding grains, and to supply drinking water to villages. In later years, they drove sawmills, pumps, forge bellows, tilt-hammers, trip hammers and to power textile mills. They were probably the first method of creating mechanical energy to replace that of humans and animals.

Types of Water Wheels

There are three main kinds of water wheels. One is the horizontal water wheel. Water flows from an aqueduct and the forward action of the water turns the wheel. Another is the overshot vertical water wheel in which water flows from an aqueduct and the gravity of the water turns the wheel. Finally, the undershot vertical water wheel is placed in a stream and is turned by the river's motion.

The First Water Wheels

The simplest and probably the earliest water wheel was a vertical wheel with paddles against which the force of a stream acted. The horizontal wheel came next. It was used for driving a millstone through a vertical shaft attached directly to the wheel. The geared mill driven by a vertical water wheel with a horizontal shaft was the last in use.

The first water wheels can be described as grindstones mounted atop vertical shafts whose vaned or paddled lower ends dipped into a swift stream. The wheel was horizontal. As early as the first century, the horizontal water wheel – which was terribly inefficient in transferring the power of the current to the milling mechanism – was replaced by water wheels of the vertical design.

Water wheels were most often used to power different types of mills. A water wheel and mill combination is called a watermill. An early horizontal-wheeled watermill used for grinding grain in Greece was the called Norse Mill. In Syria, watermills were called "noriahs.” They were used for running mills to process cotton into cloth.

Lorenzo Dow Adkins of Perry Township, Ohio received a patent for his spiral bucket water wheel in 1939.

The Hydraulic Turbine

The hydraulic turbine is a modern invention based on the same principles as the water wheel. It’s a rotary engine that uses the flow of fluid, either gas or liquid, to turn a shaft that drives machinery. Hydraulic turbines are used in hydroelectric power stations. Flowing or falling water strikes a series of blades or buckets attached around a shaft. The shaft then rotates and the motion drives the rotor of an electric generator.