Photograph by Berthold Steinhilber, Laif/Redu​x
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Apollo’s Fountain is one of 55 water features at the Palace of Versailles, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Photograph by Berthold Steinhilber, Laif/Redu​x

The mechanical wonder that powered Versailles’s fountains

A revolutionary 17th-century machine pumped water from Paris to the royal palace.

Few world wonders capture the imagination like the Palace of Versailles, with its tales of intrigue and scandal set against sprawling opulence. It was here that aristocrats during France’s Grand Siècle schemed to gain favor with the country’s rulers, sometimes making and losing fortunes in a single day.

This year marks the 250th wedding anniversary of its most famous royal residents, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. The married teenagers were the last of the French royals to sweep through these gilded halls. They followed in the footsteps of Louis XIV, the young king’s grandfather, who made Versailles what it is today.

The UNESCO World Heritage site is celebrated for its chandelier-lined Hall of Mirrors, its ornate King’s Apartments, and perhaps most of all its 55 fountains, shooting up toward the heavens, raining down over sprawling tableaux, and dancing across ponds. While the chateau was the envy of world leaders during Louis XIV’s day, the fountains weren’t always so spectacular. It took a pair of Belgian engineers and an audacious idea: to use 17th-century technology to convey waters from the Seine in the heart of Paris to the countryside, a distance of roughly 11 miles.

Wild ideas

In the late 1600s, Louis XIV cracked down on unruly aristocrats in Paris by moving the seat of his government to a countryside hamlet, where he transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a court residence that was fit for a “Sun King.”

The problem? The landlocked area was far from any source that could feed his water features, which were not only in vogue at the time, but “also fulfilled a political role, expressing in the eyes of the visitors the artistic vitality, the power, and wealth of the French monarchy,” says Benjamin Ringot, an assistant in the Palace of Versailles Research Center.

France’s longest-reigning ruler was an innovative thinker. He had the foresight to approve the building of the Canal du Midi, a wild idea to connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean, thereby cutting off the pirates threatening supply ships and reducing travel time by days, if not weeks. A lover of science, he founded the Academy of Sciences and the Paris Observatory. And in 1715 he held a solar eclipse watch party with famed astronomer Jacques Cassini.

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The Machine de Marly, designed by Arnold de Ville and Rennequin Sualem, took four years to build at a cost of about $30 million in today’s dollars.

For this water challenge, he hired Belgian engineers Arnold de Ville and Rennequin Sualem, who knew what to do: they would build an enormous pumping station on the quays of Bougival, a picturesque town outside of Paris.

The plan was to drive water from the Seine up a steep elevation to an aqueduct, via several reservoirs, eventually feeding the fountains and water features not only of Versailles, but also of the Château de Marly, a smaller estate nearby in present-day Marly-le-Roi that Louis XIV built to get away from the rigors of the court at Versailles.

Pipe dreams

After three years of planning, construction on the Machine de Marly began in 1681. Over the next four years 1,800 engineers, laborers, and carpenters put the project into action, at a cost of about $30 million in today’s dollars. All told, one third of the cost of building Versailles went to the gardens and the fountains, according to David Pendery, a former Marly-le-Roi resident who has studied the great machine for 25 years.

The Seine was diverted into two streams: one for shipping traffic and one for supplying the machine. Fourteen hydraulic wheels—each 33 feet in diameter—worked with 251 suction and treading pumps to push water uphill along a set of pipes and two other pumping stations to the Tour de Levant, the first of two towers anchoring the Louveciennes Aqueduct on each end.

Based on an ancient Roman design, the aqueduct was an enormous brick-and-stone structure spanning 36 arches and reaching a height of 65 feet, about 530 feet above the level of the Seine. When firing on all cylinders, the Louveciennes Aqueduct transported water across half a mile, with gravity taking over the rest of the way.

“The will of Louis XIV made it possible to bring forth ideas which, at the time, were not yet in gestation or were forgotten since the Romans, such as the aqueducts,” notes Jean Siaud, a retired engineer and historian.

The contraption used 850 metric tons of steel and lead, 17,000 tons of iron, 85,000 tons of wood, more than six miles of chains, and 12,000 pounds of tallow to keep the cogs lubricated.

Time takes a toll

But the massive machine wasn’t without its faults. With so many components and moving parts, it was extremely noisy, upsetting royal neighbors including Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XIV’s namesake son, who described the noise as “infernal.” Hundreds of workers kept the machine going around the clock at an estimated cost of $55,000 per year in today’s dollars.

Although the machine, when pumping at full capacity, was designed to pass more than a million gallons in 24 hours from the Seine onwards, it never quite achieved that goal, instead sending a little more than 800,000 gallons. Fault lay with the construction itself, which resulted in regular breakdowns. Exacerbating the problem was too much water being siphoned off to power the gardens of the Château de Marly, where the king hosted lavish parties with guests such as Russian Tzar Peter the Great, who was said to have been impressed with the pump.

Despite its shortcomings, the Machine de Marly brought enough water to supply Versailles’s 2,400 fountains for 133 years, though not quite at the power the palace’s fountains employ today. In 1817 de Ville and Sualem’s original was replaced by a steam-powered mechanism, which in turn was changed to hydraulic in 1859. Today the structure’s electric great-grandchild extracts water from the neighboring Croissy aquifer and has been supplying the area with water for drinking, not for fountains, since the late 1800s.

Machine as muse

Little is left of the Machine de Marly, other than one pumphouse on the tiny Île aux Bernaches, or Goose Island, in the Seine. The building that held the steam-powered apparatus remains on Quay Rennequin Sualem, just opposite the island. The aqueduct still stands, along with a pair of reservoirs behind it.

These days the aqueduct marks the entrance to a park, where the Château de Marly once stood. In its place, the small Musée du Domaine Royal preserves a treasure trove of original plans, parts, etchings, and scale models of de Ville and Sualem’s revolutionary invention.

The machine lives on in a handful of enamel reproductions of paintings that dot the four-mile-long Impressionists Walk, along Quay Rennequin Sualem. These en plein air works are placed where the artists, including Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, painted them, revealing a glimpse of a time and an invention that, nearly 350 years later, still inspires awe.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer based in Paris, France. Follow her travels on Instagram and Facebook.