If you are a lover of history, and also jump at the chance to hear any tale involving water in some way, you’re in for a real treat when you stumble upon, as I did, the Marly Machine. If they haven’t made a movie about this fascinating episode in French history, they should.

King Louis XIV (our famous Sun God who might just as accurately have called himself a Water God, given his affinity for the liquid) was in dire engineering straits. The divine ruler needed water and needed it desperately. How was he supposed to host a respectably splendid and stunning fountain show for his subjects at Versailles and Marly without the requisite water? (hint…choose sites for your entertainment venues that are closer to ample water supplies). So he put the word out on the street that he would pay handsomely anyone who could successfully fill his need…and the reservoirs. As time went on, although he collected many proposed hydrologic remedies, Louis was disappointed by the pool of candidates, with most of the outlines for blasting water up the bluff somewhat questionable, at best.

All seemed lost when, at the 11th hour, a couple of ambitious, smart, and creative young fellows by the names of Rennequin Sualem (master carpenter) and Arnold de Ville (engineer for hire) appear on the scene, plans in hand for building the machine. Well, of course, both had prior experience in moving water around, fashioning pumps, extracting water from coal mines, that sort of thing. In the end, the king knew a good thing when he saw it and immediately pushed the project their way, fully confident that the water would effortlessly flow to the fountains. And it did, sort of… eventually, several years later.

Sualem and de Ville feverishly began the work, together plotting and planning the difficult work of modifying the Seine, laying out the construction site, gathering together the small army of workers who would pound the whole flatrod system together. It was one of the most ambitious engineering feats to date. After all, they were going to move water over a longer distance than was prudent and up a steeper incline than was practical (almost a 500 foot vertical rise, all told). How does one go about such an enterprise when electrical pumps haven’t yet been invented (although steam was on its way)? Answer…use water to move water.

Over the centuries, the water wheel has been one of the most basic and useful tools for performing work. Its simple and straightforward principles are still used in many parts of the world today for such mundane tasks as making flour and sawing wood. Dip some paddles down in the flowing water and you have instant, constant, and reliable rotation. Rotary movement is a hallmark for getting work done.

The enterprising duo would have known this, of course (although many engineering principles that would have greatly improved their efficiency were still unknown at the time). It was as much a matter of sheer will power, however, as it was engineering prowess to move the quantities of water they were proposing at the time. The massive machine that resulted, most impressive by any standard, was also highly prone to mechanical failure.

With the entirety of the torque derived from the rotating wheels way down on the river below, the linkages necessary to drive the pumps much further uphill were bound to be problematic. It was probably not well conveyed to the king at the time the contract was awarded that a standing maintenance crew of some sixty men would be required to address the frequent breakdowns that were part and parcel of the mechanical components throughout the project’s lifetime.

Fourteen paddle wheels—each thirty plus feet in diameter—was remarkable stuff, churning on a river that had been narrowed and dropped to provide the necessary flow. After all, the wheels were the engines that drove those hundreds of pumps that heaved the water uphill. The quantities of labor and materials to pull off the King’s self-indulgent stunt were staggering.  Almost two thousand laborers, multiple tens of thousands of tons of wood and iron and lead. It was as though Louis was outfitting an army preparing for war. But if it was war, it was one of aesthetics.  Water, in the case of Louis and Versailles and his fountains, was simply an elegant and expensive way to suggest endless supplies of prestige, power, consumption.

The rattletrap noise the machine made when cranking at full bore (which would have been rare, since…you can probably guess…maintenance and repairs) must have resembled a battlefield barrage, and became the infamous stuff of legend, at times keeping the neighbors angrily awake at all hours of the night.

At any rate, a successful demo was done for Louis in mid-1682, only a year or so after the project had broken ground. Water was shown to move successfully up to the top of the hill by the Seine. It wasn’t until several years later, though, after staged reservoirs had been dug, and a well-arched aqueduct was complete, that the thing was considered finished.

Overall, the king must have been pleased with the results. Sualem was well-compensated for his hard-to-come by skills, eventually obtaining a position in the king’s court and enjoying the benefits of knighthood. Engineer de Ville (Baron and lawyer, to boot) also became quite rich, ultimately bestowed with his own chateau in the vicinity, and rising in stature as he went along, never missing an opportunity to climb.

As is the case in many such monumental undertakings, however, the results were not exactly as planned. As already mentioned, maintenance was ever present and costly. The efficiency of the engineering was beyond inadequate, and the thing was falling down, by degrees, almost before it was fully stood up. And besides, the fountains at Versailles were a real drain on things, simply requiring too much pressure and capacity to run very often as designed. Much of the water pumped by Marly wound up flowing to the much smaller and intimate Chateau of Marly, instead. The water wound up where it was most supposed to be.

Over the decades and centuries, the Marly Machine would undergo numerous transitions, always driven by improved engineering technology. Although the original construction remained in operation until the early 19th century, only remnants of the original works are still evident today.

Sincere thanks for stopping by!

G2