Water Motors

Gallery opened: Dec 2006

Updated: 12 Oct 2017

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Water motors in the Home
Water motors for Meccano
Water motors in the laboratory Updated
Water motors in industry
On the Pelton turbine

A water motor, as opposed to a positive-displacement water engine, was a small Pelton-type water turbine, often driven from a domestic tap; these were used for many light tasks, such as driving centrifuges and stirrers in chemical laboratories or running sewing machines. Like water engines, they were eventually displaced by electric motors.

There is nothing particularly unusual about a Pelton turbine, but their use for providing small amounts of domestic power seems to be virtually forgotten. Hence this gallery of the museum. Within each section the exhibits are in as close to chronologival order as I can get.

Left: A typical water motor

The most usual form of water motor was a vertical Pelton wheel like this one, where one side has been cut away. Water shoots out of the jet on the lower right and strikes the buckets on the wheel, making it rotate. The used water then falls out of the bottom of the casing in this model

The purpose of the pipe angling upwards from the shaft bearing is unknown, but it is probably some form of lubricator.

This type of machine may look a little crude, but it has a high energy conversion efficiency, usually over 90%.

Image copyright by Robert Barrett


Left: A Lane water motor coupled to a sewing machine: 1881

It looks like the Pelton wheel is horizontal, which was unusual. There seems to be some sort of reduction gear (probably a worm and pinion) driving the small shaft with the pulley at the end. The treadle appears to be controlling operation, presumably by actuating an inlet valve. Unfortunately the original picture is not very clear.

Note the two hoses for water inlet and outlet.

From Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary 1881.

Left: American Pelton wheel water motor: 1895

Water entry is at the side, controlled by a valve whose handle can be seen at lower left. The exhaust is the large pipe at the bottom.

From catalogue issued by Chas A Strelinger & Co, of Detroit, Mich; 1895

Left: Specifications of Pelton wheel water motors: 1895

This table refers to a range of Pelton motors that starts with the smallest, Number 0 illustrated above.

Given the apparent confidence of the company in its products, it is a little curious that no figures are given for power, speed, or water consumption.

From catalogue issued by Chas A Strelinger & Co, of Detroit, Mich; 1895

Left: The Bolgiano Little Giant water motor: 1895

This motor, apparently hinged to the wall, looks like it is quite large; taking the scale from the sewing machine it must be something like two feet across. On the other hand the text claims that a 5-1/2 inch wheel will drive a sewing machine. One wonders if the drive pulley really was off-centre in the casing; if it was, the idea was probably to give free escape for the exhaust water.

Regrettably the drive belt has just snapped in two places simultaneously, so no sewing will be done for the time being.

From catalogue issued by Chas A Strelinger & Co, of Detroit, Mich; 1895

Left: A fan powered by a water motor: 1898

The water is supplied through the hose at the top. The fan can be swivelled on a ball joint at its base. It looks as though the exhaust water falls out through the middle of this ball-joint, but the original article makes no mention of how this is handled.

"By attaching a balance-wheel and pulley, the motor can be made to drive a ceiling or post-fan, or a sewing machine, with water working at a pressure of 40psi. With a pressure of 50 to 60 psi, a telephone exchange generator can be driven... The motor consumes about 7 pints of water per minute."

This fan was manufactured by the A Rosenberg Company of Baltimore, Md, USA.

From English Mechanic 9 Sept 1898, p83; originally from Scientific American

Left: A home-made water motor, by a certain Mr F M Jephcott: 1904

The jet of water can be seen coming in from the top. The drum was 7 inches in diameter by 1.25 inches wide. The buckets were made from tin and fastened on with wood-screws. Mr Jephcott reported he got the water supply through 0.5 inch pipe from a main with a 70 foot head, and this gave enough power to run a small dynamo.

From Model Engineer and Electrician, 2 Jan 1904.

Left: The Whitney water motor: 1906

This is a typical water motor. The water supply is connected to the horizontal spigot at lower right, and the waste water drops out of the bottom of the casing. The Pelton wheel inside is directly connected to the pulley on the side.

So just how much power could you expect from a water motor? In a report in Model Engineer & Electrician for 2 Feb, 1905, it was stated that Messrs Whitney of 117 City Rd, London, were selling a water motor with an 8.5 in diameter wheel rated at 1/4 hp with water pressure of 60 psi. This was considered to be conservative as "a 5in wheel would normally be so rated".

Picture from Model Engineer and Electrician July 5, 1906

Some more performance data was gleaned from a catalogue produced by Gilkes of Kendal, who also made big industrial turbines. This table refers to their Number 3 water motor, which had an overall height of 17in:


And how much did they cost? This advert appeared in the for sale section of The Model Engineer & Electrician for October 25, 1906:
"Water Motor, 9ins diameter, brass wheel, all brass fittings; 14s,; bargains.- Hinchcliffe, 3 Castlegate, Huddersfield."
Considering that the Whitney motor above cost 26s, it does indeed appear to be a bargain.

The Model Engineer and Electrician, 15 Feb 1912, carried this ad:

Water Motors:
The "Midget" 6s 9d; castings 3s 6d. The "Amateur" 1/8 hp, 18s 9d; castings 6s 6d. The "Whitney" 1/4 hp, 26s; castings 18s 6d. The most inexpensive means of obtaining power for all purposes.

The reference to castings needs explaining. In those days you could buy just buy the castings for steam engines etc, and do all the rest of the construction yourself.
By 1927 the cost of the Whitney motor had gone up to 45s, or 25s for just the castings.

Left: A design for a water motor: 1906

The jet of water comes in from the bottom right. The function of the 'splasher plate' is currently obscure.

This design was published in a series of articles called "Water Motors and other Hydraulic Machines" by a Mister Joseph G Solis.

From Model Engineer and Electrician, 30 Aug 1906.

Left: The Warner Motor Company's 'Hydro-Massage' machine: 1906

This water-powered massage machine is not quite what it seems. It was not for massaging the tip of your nose, as shown here. It is a hydraulic vibrator.

An advert taken out by the Warner Motor Company Inc. (New York) in Modern Women. They had offices in the famous Flatiron building.

Bibliography: The Technology of Orgasm, by Rachel Maines. Pub John Hopkins 1999.

Left: The Warner Motor Company's 'Hydro-Massage' machine: 1906

I think we can all agree that after shaving there's nothing like a thoroughly good session with a vibrator. The advert assures us that for women at least, it 'soothes the nerves'. Verb sap.

Note that the blurb refers to 'good old-fashioned water power', intended to fend off the 'electrical vibrators' mentioned further on.

From Popular Mechanics Dec 1906

Left: The Red Devil water motor: 1906

This looks very similiar to the Warner advert above, but is actually from a completely different company.

The name of the company (which does not exactly match the name of the motor) suggests that it would run best on holy water, but I imagine this was not the case; certainly it appears that Old Nick has no objection to sharpening the end of his tail with it.

From Popular Mechanics Dec 1906

Left: Water motor and dynamo combination: 1912

This outfit was intended for charging accumulators that were then used to run a radio.

Given the open construction of the dynamo, there is a big incentive to get all the pipes truly water-tight. However, if the dynamo was for charging filament batteries (HT batteries were usually of the dry-cell type) the voltage would have been low and there would have been little risk of electric shock.

Left: The Red Devil water motor: 1912

There's not much to say about this water motor that is not written in the advertisment.

From Popular Mechanics Jan 1912

Left: Another water motor design: 1921

The design was intended for home construction. Here the jet of water points downwards.

A motor to this design was used to drive a washing-machine. Interestingly the article describing it was written by the constructor's wife.

From The Boy Mechanic, Book 1. 1921. The book seems to have been published by the Popular Mechanics Co.

Left: This is a rare picture of a water motor doing a job of work.

The motor is geared down by what appears to be about 8 times, to rock a developing tray for photographic plates. The exhaust water is then ingeniously used for washing the developed plates.

From Things To Make by Archibald Williams.

Left: Water motors: 1937

This is the most recent advert for water motors as such that I have found so far.

By 1937 many houses in Great Britain were connected to an electricity supply, (The only figure I can find is that 9 million users had been connected by 1938) and the market must have been shrinking fast. Interestingly, they are described as "water turbines" rather than "water motors", perhaps because it sounded more up-to-date.

These motors have twin and triple turbine wheels, clearly of the Pelton kind; the advantage of this over a single bigger wheel is unclear. Probably it simply made for a more compact motor. The nozzles are visible on this side, and it is presumably the exhaust pipe or pipes that can just be seen sticking out of the far side of each motor.

The ad for a mains transformer at the bottom of the page is a sign of the times.

From Practical Mechanics Jan 1937, p237

Left: The Duchess potato peeler: early 1960s

Here is a relatively recent application of a water motor.

The Duchess potato peeler sat in the sink, with the hose connected to the cold tap. Inside was a crude Pelton turbine on a vertical axis, driving a horizontal plastic plate which had an abrasive moulded surface; as did the inside of the bowl. The plate spun at enormous speed; the outflow from the Pelton came up through the annular gap, washed the abrasive and the potatoes, and flowed away back down the gap and into the sink. It was very effective: the peelings went down the drain as a fine slurry, as did much of the potato...

Thanks to John Flindall for bringing this to my attention.

Left: The Duchess potato peeler: early 1960s

Here is the real thing.

No doubt ideal for making Duchess potatoes.

Thanks to John Flindall for providing the colour image.

Left: Prestomix food mixer: early 1960s ??

This ingenious device is apparently supported solely by its attachment to the tap; the white collar screws onto it. Not much use if you didn't have a threaded tap. However, it will work at 100 speeds! In reality it would no doubt work at an infinite number of speeds, depending on tap adjustment. The date is a guess, partly based on the price of $6.95.

You may be wondering what the point is, as electricity supplies were widespread in the USA by then. I imagine cost is the issue; it would be much cheaper to make than a mixer with an electric motor.

The manufacturer was probably National Presto Industries Inc, of Wisconsin, assuming this is another of their products. They appear to be still in business.

Image copyright by Robert Barrett


The Meccano construction system incudes a comprehensive range of chains, cranks, and gears and the desirability of powering models was recognised very early on. Official Meccano motors have worked by clockwork, electricity and even steam, but I have only just been made aware of the Meccano water motors.

Above: Meccano water motor No 2: 1914

The water inlet is at the top, and the outlet at the bottom in the right-hand picture. One of these changed hands for no less than £1,927 on Ebay in June 2011; they are considered very rare. Note there is an output shaft on both sides of the casing. This water motor was introduced in 1914.

Left: Meccano water motor No 2: 1914

This No 2 motor has the original inlet hose and tap connector.

This image was sent to me by one of my many correspondents and I have been unable to establish its provenance. If you feel I have violated any copyright please let me know.

Left: Meccano water motor, model number unknown: 1914

This is also a Meccano water motor, though different from the No 2 shown above; its model number is not currently known. Since the motor shown above is No 2, this might be No 1. This is supported by the fact that it looks a bit cruder in construction, with two screwed endplates rather than the dished body and single endplate of the No 2 motor.

The height is 5 inches to the top of the water inlet.

Left: Meccano water motor: 1914

This illustration is from a French instruction manual of 1914 or 1915. It appears to show the motor illustrated just above, and not the No 2 motor, though the base is different, without "Meccano-spaced" fixing holes. The power output was stated as 1/60 of a horsepower with a water head of 21 metres. (69 feet) The price of the water motor was 17 Francs, while the electric motor on the previous page was a lot more expensive at 75 Francs.

The hose, tap connection, and chain look identical to that of the No 2 motor above.

My first Meccano models were driven first by a hand-crank, then by the tiny Magic clockwork motor which was sorely lacking in torque. I progressed to the rather more effective No 1 clockwork motor with the reversing lever, and then the E15R electric motor, which was when things really got moving. I then bought one of those little red Emebo motors, (can't remember why...) and finished up with two Powerdrive motors (the one with the cylindrical 6-speed gearbox) which I used in some robotics experiments. I still have all of them.


Before mains electricity was widely available, water motors were a good source of small amounts of power in chemical laboratories. Steam power required constant skilled attendance and there was always the possibility of a boiler explosion. Hot air engines were safe, but still required stoking and the storage of fuel.

Left: Water motors in the Griffin catalogue

This illustration is from a hefty catalogue called "Griffin's Chemical Handicraft" that runs to 850 pages; regrettably it is not dated, but Griffin did have a telephone number at the time. John Griffin and Sons ran a well-known laboratory supply firm in Kingsway, London.

These motors are described as "Rabe turbines", though as far as can be deduced from the illustrations they were a form of Pelton wheel. The phrase "Rabe turbine" seems to have specifically referred to small turbines for laboratory work, for example: here. (see page 243)

Frederick William Rabe (Jr) appears to have been a turbine expert at Yale University. An article by Rabe, "A turbine for laboratory purposes" appeared in The Journal of the Chemical Society (Great Britain) in 1888.

Left: A Rabe turbine

Google renders the German description as "For connection to the water pipe, aluminum wheel, creating a quiet and smooth movement is achieved."

Left: A development of the Rabe turbine in a laboratory apparatus catalogue

This version has integral reduction gearing, but it is not known what, if any, changes were made to the basic Pelton construction.

Google renders the German catalogue description as "Turbine, new construction, is characterized by large velocity and thereby significantly greater force performance over the Rabe turbine." The last bit came out originally as "the raven's turbine." because "Rabeschen" means "belonging to the raven".

From the catalogue of Franz Hugershoff of Liepzig 1911.
"Illustrierte Preisliste III über Biologische Apparate" (p0026, Fig b270c_d_e)

Left: Rabe turbine as above, with cover removed.

The slanting spigot at the top is the water inlet. The exhaust exits downwards.

From the catalogue of Franz Hugershoff of Liepzig 1911.
"Illustrierte Preisliste III über Biologische Apparate" (p0026, Fig b270a_b_e)

Left: A Rabe turbine

Google renders the German description as "Water motor (turbine) Rabe, for connection to water mains, with gear ratio for low speed, with greater force development. (20 cm diameter)"

I think this is the same motor again, clearly being manufactured and then sold to laboratory apparatus distributors.

From: E Zimmermann, 1912. "Psychologische und Physiologische Apparate. Liste 25." (p0235, Fig 4527_30)

Left: The Chicago's-Top water motor in the Griffin catalogue

This device is a bit of a mystery. Almost all the water motors on this page are very clearly of the Pelton-wheel type, but this is described as having a driving wheel carrying "twelve steel floats" rather than buckets, (though floats might mean buckets, I suppose) and having a "bell-shaped distributor" rather than the usual Pelton nozzle.

The motor is unknown to Google.

Another excellent source of information on water motors in the laboratory is the "Catalogue of General & Industrial Laboratory Apparatus", issued by Chas Hearson & Co Ltd, of Willow Walk, Bermondsey, London in Jan 1930.

Left: A water motor powered centrifuge: 1930

This water motor has twin nozzles for greater power output. The water exhaust is taken out at lower right, either downwards or sideways by using the appropriate hole. The small glass cylinder at upper left is presumably a lubricator for the lower bearing, which would have borne the weight of the turbine wheel and the test-tube carrier.

These motors were capable of respectable speeds, given enough water pressure; this table was provided by Hearson & Co:


No figures were given for power output.

From the Chas Hearson catalogue.

Left: A water motor powered centrifuge: horizontal section. (looking from top) 1930

The water exhaust is on the right. This part of the drawing is distorted as it was right in the fold of the book; the exit pipe was really circular in cross-section.

Quite why the second nozzle was set at an angle is unclear; 180 degrees seems to be the obvious alignment as it would minimise side-force on the bearings. I should have thought the exhaust could have been offset without any problems.

From the Chas Hearson catalogue.

Left: The water motor powered centrifuge worked by hand-pump: 1930

Setup for use where there is no piped water supply; the water exhaust here is taken out from the side and returned to the bucket. The Hearson catalogue has a fine old colonial flavour, many of its products being aimed at organisations in farway places where neither mains water or electricity was available. With this arrangement, unskilled local labour could be put to work on the pump handle.

On further thought, I'm not sure that this makes a huge amount of sense. Surely it would have been easier to drive the centrifuge directly from a handle, geared up by a suitable amount? This would eliminate losses in the pump, pipework, and turbine.

From the Chas Hearson catalogue.

Left: Water motors in the Townson & Mercer catalogue: 1937

CA6639 had a water wheel 2.5 inches in diameter, turning at 2500 to 4000 rpm, depending on the water pressure available; it cost £1 1s. A variation on this, CA6641 had a 2.75in wheel to give greater power.(And greater water consumption) and cost £1 7s 6d. CA6642 was top of the power range with a 3.75in wheel; it cost £1 15s.

Townson & Mercer of were suppliers of laboratory equipment.

CA6643 is a different motor with a 75mm wheel and a boss head attached so it could be clamped to a laboratory stand; it cost £1 17s 6d. Note clamp on shaft at top for holding a stirrer.

CA6644 is a vertical motor with a 2.75in diameter wheel. Water inlet is at top left and water exhaust at lower right. Cost £1 10s.

Left: Water turbine from the Baird and Tatlock catalogue: 1954

This is the only water motor in the 1954 catalogue; clearly they were falling out of fashion. No specs for power or rotational speed are given, possibly indicating this wasn't a product they were too concerned about.

Another well-known supplier of laboratory equipment was Baird and Tatlock, of Chadwell Heath, England. Baird and Tatlock were founded in 1881.

Left: The introduction of water-powered stirrers

An anecdote about the introduction of water-powered stirrers into the laboratory of Adolf von Baeyer (1835-1917) one of the great German organic chemists.

The Frau Professor's comment means: "That should be able to make good mayonnaise".

From a review article by John Read in Nature, 131, 294, (1933)


Left: Water-powered industrial fan

There isn't much to give scale to this fan, but at a rough guess it is about 3 feet high. That would make it too large for domestic use, and I suspect it was intended to cool down workshops.

Date and location unknown.

Left: Water-powered industrial fan

The fan from the rear. The water that powers it enters through the hose at left, and the exhaust water falls down the hollow supporting column and exits from the T-junction near the base.

Left: A water motor in use today at Twyford water works, Hampshire

This water motor is of the usual Pelton type. It is used to dispense carbon to absorb residual impurities in the water. The motor is the disc-shaped object at left, partly concealed by a pressure gauge. Operating pressure is 23 psi.

This explanation was given by the volunteer who provided the picture:

"The carbon plant in the corner of the mixing room was added when the diesel pumps were installed in the 1930's, to remove any possible contamination by diesel fuel. The plant is operated by a pelton wheel, driven by mains water pressure and it measured out a small quantity of carbon which the spent water from the pelton wheel washed through pipes, into the water softening tank. Here the carbon floated on the water and absorbed any oil present on the surface."

Image used by permission

Left: W H Bailey water motor: 1901?

This W H Bailey water motor was made at the Albion Works, at Salford, England. It ran a ventilation fan in a "killing shed" on Kuriheka Farm Estate, near Oamaru on the South Island of New Zealand, where animals were slaughtered for on-farm needs and the meat hung. The building dates from 1901 and the motor may well date from before then.

This motor is still in use. In the background a belt can be seen that runs upward to drive a large-diameter fan. The pink plastic is to stop the inlet pipe freezing in cold weather.

Graces Guide has a history of W H Bailey & Co. Water motors were only a small part of a very wide range of valves, pumps, etc. The company still existed in 1968 but it is nor clear if it is still around now.

Picture kindly supplied by Bruce Comfort.

Left: W H Bailey water motor: 1901?

This is another W H Bailey water motor, cemented into a wall in the basement kitchen of what was once the Empire Hotel in Oamaru. (see above) The pipe at the bottom is the water exhaust- no inlet is visible. It probably drove a ventilation fan or perhaps some kitchen appliance such as a mixer or a spit roaster.

Picture kindly supplied by Bruce Comfort.

Left: Thirlmere water motor by W H Bailey

This is the W H Bailey water motor shown above, after being cleaned up and painted, with name and maker now clearly visible.

Thirlmere is a water supply reservoir in the English Lake District, built in the early 1880's. It supplies Manchester via the Thirlmere Aqueduct. Baileys, as manufacturers of a large range of valves and pumps, probably had a major involvement in this project, and adopted the name for their water motor.

Left: A water motor powered fire alarm: 1949

British buildings protected by sprinkler systems always have outside alarm bells activated by small Pelton turbines. When the sprinklers begin to discharge onto a fire, the main flow of water lifts a valve that sends a small amount of water to the alarm turbine. This has the great merit that it does not rely on a supply of electricity to operate the gong. It is also immune from frost as the pipe to the alarm is kept empty of water until the system is activated.

A bypass valve allows the alarm to be periodically tested.

From Manual of Firemanship Part 4, p103. Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1949

Left: A water motor powered fire alarm: 2008

Alarm bells activated by small turbines are very much still with us. This picture was taken on the afternoon of the 5th of July, 2008, on the inside of one of the outside walls of the John Lewis department store, on Oxford St, London. Note the bottom pipe is marked "drain".

You can learn more on the Angus Fire website here (external link)

Authors photo.


The Pelton impulse water turbine, on which most water motors were based, was invented by the American Lester Allan Pelton (1829-1908). He was born in Vermilion, Ohio in 1850 and moved to California during the gold rush. (1848-1855) Pelton worked there as a carpenter and millwright.

Water turbines and water wheels were not new, but Pelton's innovation was to shape the buckets on the wheel so that the impinging water was reversed in direction, thus extracting more energy from it. For greatest efficiency the buckets are receeding at half the speed of the water so that the water is brought to a stop.

The Pelton wheel was first used at the Mayflower Mine in Nevada City, California in 1878. By 1879 he had tested a prototype Pelton wheel at the University of California.

In 1887 a miner attached a Pelton wheel to a dynamo and thereby produced the first hydroelectric power in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

A patent was granted to Pelton in 1889, and he later sold the rights to the Pelton Water Wheel Company of San Francisco.

The Pelton turbine works best with relatively small amounts of water at high pressure. It has a high energy conversion efficiency, usually over 90%.


The water-motor lives on! See: homepower.com This describes a small Pelton turbine. See page 52.
More info on it: www.watermotor.net

Evans Engineering look like they know what they are about.

Water motors are often used to power irrigation equipment. See: www.kifco.com

Typing "water motor" into Google does not yield much. "Micro-hydro" however brings in a lot of info about modern small turbines.

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