A friendly science with concrete postulates, straightforward analysis, ancient history and useful applications


Hydrostatics is about the pressures exerted by a fluid at rest. Any fluid is meant, not just water. It is usually relegated to an early chapter in Fluid Mechanics texts, since its results are widely used in that study. The study yields many useful results of its own, however, such as forces on dams, buoyancy and hydraulic actuation, and is well worth studying for such practical reasons. It is an excellent example of deductive mathematical physics, one that can be understood easily and completely from a very few fundamentals, and in which the predictions agree closely with experiment. There are few better illustrations of the use of the integral calculus, as well as the principles of ordinary statics, available to the student. A great deal can be done with only elementary mathematics. Properly adapted, the material can be used from the earliest introduction of school science, giving an excellent example of a quantitative science with many possibilities for hands-on experiences.

The definition of a fluid deserves careful consideration. Although time is not a factor in hydrostatics, it enters in the approach to hydrostatic equilibrium. It is usually stated that a fluid is a substance that cannot resist a shearing stress, so that pressures are normal to confining surfaces. Geology has now shown us clearly that there are substances which can resist shearing forces over short time intervals, and appear to be typical solids, but which flow like liquids over long time intervals. Such materials include wax and pitch, ice, and even rock. A ball of pitch, which can be shattered by a hammer, will spread out and flow in months. Ice, a typical solid, will flow in a period of years, as shown in glaciers, and rock will flow over hundreds of years, as in convection in the mantle of the earth. Shear earthquake waves, with periods of seconds, propagate deep in the earth, though the rock there can flow like a liquid when considered over centuries. The rate of shearing may not be strictly proportional to the stress, but exists even with low stress. Viscosity may be the physical property that varies over the largest numerical range, competing with electrical resistivity.

There are several familiar topics in hydrostatics which often appear in expositions of introductory science, and which are also of historical interest that can enliven their presentation. The following will be discussed briefly here:

A study of hydrostatics can also include capillarity, the ideal gas laws, the velocity of sound, and hygrometry. These interesting applications will not be discussed in this article. At a beginning level, it may also be interesting to study the volumes and areas of certain shapes, or at a more advanced level, the forces exerted by heavy liquids on their containers. Hydrostatics is a very concrete science that avoids esoteric concepts and advanced mathematics. It is also much easier to demonstrate than Newtonian mechanics.


By a fluid, we have a material in mind like water or air, two very common and important fluids. Water is incompressible, while air is very compressible, but both are fluids. Water has a definite volume; air does not. Water and air have low viscosity; that is, layers of them slide very easily on one another, and they quickly assume their permanent shapes when disturbed by rapid flows. Other fluids, such as molasses, may have high viscosity and take a long time to come to equilibrium, but they are no less fluids. The coefficient of viscosity is the ratio of the shearing force to the velocity gradient. Hydrostatics deals with permanent, time-independent states of fluids, so viscosity does not appear, except as discussed in the Introduction.

A fluid, therefore, is a substance that cannot exert any permanent forces tangential to a boundary. Any force that it exerts on a boundary must be normal to the boundary. Such a force is proportional to the area on which it is exerted, and is called a pressure. We can imagine any surface in a fluid as dividing the fluid into parts pressing on each other, as if it were a thin material membrane, and so think of the pressure at any point in the fluid, not just at the boundaries. In order for any small element of the fluid to be in equilibrium, the pressure must be the same in all directions (or the element would move in the direction of least pressure), and if no other forces are acting on the body of the fluid, the pressure must be the same at all neighbouring points. Therefore, in this case the pressure will be the same throughout the fluid, and the same in any direction at a point (Pascal's Principle). Pressure is expressed in units of force per unit area such as dyne/cm2, N/cm2 (pascal), pounds/in2 (psi) or pounds/ft2 (psf). The axiom that if a certain volume of fluid were somehow made solid, the equilibrium of forces would not be disturbed, is useful in reasoning about forces in fluids.

On earth, fluids are also subject to the force of gravity, which acts vertically downward, and has a magnitude γ = ρg per unit volume, where g is the acceleration of gravity, approximately 981 cm/s2 or 32.15 ft/s2, ρ is the density, the mass per unit volume, expressed in g/cm3, kg/m3, or slug/ft3, and γ is the specific weight, measured in lb/in3, or lb/ft3 (pcf). Gravitation is an example of a body force that disturbs the equality of pressure in a fluid. The presence of the gravitational body force causes the pressure to increase with depth, according to the equation dp = ρg dh, in order to support the water above. We call this relation the barometric equation, for when this equation is integrated, we find the variation of pressure with height or depth. If the fluid is incompressible, the equation can be integrated at once, and the pressure as a function of depth h is p = ρgh + p0. The density of water is about 1 g/cm3, or its specific weight is 62.4 pcf. We may ask what depth of water gives the normal sea-level atmospheric pressure of 14.7 psi, or 2117 psf. This is simply 2117 / 62.4 = 33.9 ft of water. This is the maximum height to which water can be raised by a suction pump, or, more correctly, can be supported by atmospheric pressure.

Professor James Thomson (brother of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin) illustrated the equality of pressure by a "curtain-ring" analogy shown in the diagram. A section of the toroid was identified, imagined to be solidified, and its equilibrium was analyzed. The forces exerted on the curved surfaces have no component along the normal to a plane section, so the pressures at any two points of a plane must be equal, since the fluid represented by the curtain ring was in equilibrium. The right-hand part of the diagram illustrates the equality of pressures in orthogonal directions. This can be extended to any direction whatever, so Pascal's Principle is established. This demonstration is similar to the usual one using a triangular prism and considering the forces on the end and lateral faces separately.

When gravity acts, the liquid assumes a free surface perpendicular to gravity, which can be proved by Thomson's method. A straight cylinder of unit cross-sectional area (assumed only for ease in the arithmetic) can be used to find the increase of pressure with depth. Indeed, we see that p2 = p1 + ρgh. The upper surface of the cylinder can be placed at the free surface if desired. The pressure is now the same in any direction at a point, but is greater at points that lie deeper. From this same figure, it is easy to prove Archimedes's Principle, that the buoyant force is equal to the weight of the displaced fluid, and passes through the center of mass of this displaced fluid.

Ingenious geometric arguments can be used to substitute for easier, but less transparent arguments using calculus. For example, the force on acting on one side of an inclined plane surface whose projection is AB can be found as in the diagram at the right. O is the point at which the prolonged projection intersects the free surface. The line AC' perpendicular to the plane is made equal to the depth AC of point A, and line BD' is similarly drawn equal to BD. The line OD' also passes through C', by proportionality of triangles OAC' and OAD'. Therefore, the thrust F on the plane is the weight of a prism of fluid of cross-section AC'D'B, passing through its centroid normal to plane AB. Note that the thrust is equal to the density times the area times the depth of the center of the area, but its line of action does not pass through the center, but below it, at the center of thrust. The same result can be obtained with calculus by summing the pressures and the moments, of course.

Atmospheric Pressure and its Effects

Suppose a vertical pipe is stood in a pool of water, and a vacuum pump applied to the upper end. Before we start the pump, the water levels outside and inside the pipe are equal, and the pressures on the surfaces are also equal, and equal to the atmospheric pressure. Now start the pump. When it has sucked all the air out above the water, the pressure on the surface of the water inside the pipe is zero, and the pressure at the level of the water on the outside of the pipe is still the atmospheric pressure. Of course, there is the vapour pressure of the water to worry about if you want to be precise, but we neglect this complication in making our point. We require a column of water 33.9 ft high inside the pipe, with a vacuum above it, to balance the atmospheric pressure. Now do the same thing with liquid mercury, whose density at 0 °C is 13.5951 times that of water. The height of the column is 2.494 ft, 29.92 in, or 760.0 mm. This definition of the standard atmospheric pressure was established by Regnault in the mid-19th century. In Britain, 30 inHg (inches of mercury) had been used previously.

As a practical matter, it is convenient to measure pressure differences by measuring the height of liquid columns, a practice known as manometry. The barometer is a familiar example of this, and atmospheric pressures are traditionally given in terms of the length of a mercury column. To make a barometer, the barometric tube, closed at one end, is filled with mercury and then inverted and placed in a mercury reservoir. Corrections must be made for temperature, because the density of mercury depends on the temperature, and the brass scale expands, for capillarity if the tube is less than about 1 cm in diameter, and even slightly for altitude, since the value of g changes with altitude. The vapor pressure of mercury is only 0.001201 mmHg at 20°C, so a correction from this source is negligible. For the usual case of a mercury column (α = 0.000181792 per °C) and a brass scale (&alpha = 0.0000184 per °C) the temperature correction is -2.74 mm at 760 mm and 20°C. Before reading the barometer scale, the mercury reservoir is raised or lowered until the surface of the mercury just touches a reference point, which is mirrored in the surface so it is easy to determine the proper position.

An aneroid barometer uses a partially evacuated chamber of thin metal that expands and contracts according to the external pressure. This movement is communicated to a needle that revolves in a dial. The materials and construction are arranged to give a low temperature coefficient. The instrument must be calibrated before use, and is usually arranged to read directly in elevations. An aneroid barometer is much easier to use in field observations, such as in reconnaisance surveys. In a particular case, it would be read at the start of the day at the base camp, at various points in the vicinity, and then finally at the starting point, to determine the change in pressure with time. The height differences can be calculated from h = 60,360 log(P/p) [1 + (T + t - 64)/986) feet, where P and p are in the same units, and T, t are in °F.

An absolute pressure is referred to a vacuum, while a gauge pressure is referred to the atmospheric pressure at the moment. A negative gauge pressure is a (partial) vacuum. When a vacuum is stated to be so many inches, this means the pressure below the atmospheric pressure of about 30 in. A vacuum of 25 inches is the same thing as an absolute pressure of 5 inches (of mercury). Pressures are very frequently stated in terms of the height of a fluid. If it is the same fluid whose pressure is being given, it is usually called "head," and the factor connecting the head and the pressure is the weight density ρg. In the English engineer's system, weight density is in pounds per cubic inch or cubic foot. A head of 10 ft is equivalent to a pressure of 624 psf, or 4.33 psi. It can also be considered an energy availability of ft-lb per lb. Water with a pressure head of 10 ft can furnish the same energy as an equal amount of water raised by 10 ft. Water flowing in a pipe is subject to head loss because of friction.

Take a jar and a basin of water. Fill the jar with water and invert it under the water in the basin. Now raise the jar as far as you can without allowing its mouth to come above the water surface. It is always a little surprising to see that the jar does not empty itself, but the water remains with no visible means of support. By blowing through a straw, one can put air into the jar, and as much water leaves as air enters. In fact, this is a famous method of collecting insoluble gases in the chemical laboratory, or for supplying hummingbird feeders. It is good to remind oneself of exactly the balance of forces involved.

Another application of pressure is the siphon. The name is Greek for the tube that was used for drawing wine from a cask. This is a tube filled with fluid connecting two containers of fluid, normally rising higher than the water levels in the two containers, at least to pass over their rims. In the diagram, the two water levels are the same, so there will be no flow. When a siphon goes below the free water levels, it is called an inverted siphon. If the levels in the two basins are not equal, fluid flows from the basin with the higher level into the one with the lower level, until the levels are equal. A siphon can be made by filling the tube, closing the ends, and then putting the ends under the surface on both sides. Alternatively, the tube can be placed in one fluid and filled by sucking on it. When it is full, the other end is put in place. The analysis of the siphon is easy, and should be obvious. The pressure rises or falls as described by the barometric equation through the siphon tube. There is obviously a maximum height for the siphon which is the same as the limit of the suction pump, about 34 feet. Inverted siphons (which are really not siphons at all) are sometimes used in pipelines to cross valleys. Differences in elevation are usually too great to use regular siphons to cross hills, so the fluids must be pressurized by pumps so the pressure does not fall to zero at the crests. The Quabbin Aqueduct, which supplies water to Boston, includes pumped siphons.

As the level in the supply container falls, the pressure difference decreases. In some cases, one would like a source that would provide a constant pressure at the outlet of the siphon. An ingenious way to arrive at this is shown in the figure, Mariotte's Bottle. The plug must seal the air space at the top very well. A partial vacuum is created in the air space by the fall of the water level exactly equal to the pressure difference between the surface and the end of the open tube connecting to the atmosphere. The pressure at this point is, therefore, maintained at atmospheric while water is delivered. The head available at the nozzle as shown is equal to h. This would make a good experiment to verify the relation V = √(2gh) since h and the horizontal distance reached by the jet for a given fall can both be measured easily, or the discharge from an orifice.

The term "siphon" is often used in a different sense. In biology, a siphon is simply a tubular structure. A thermal siphon is a means to circulate a liquid by convection. A soda siphon is a source of carbonated water, while siphon coffee (or vacuum coffee) is made in an apparatus where the steam from boiling water pushes hot water up above the coffee and filter, and then the vacuum causes the water to descend again when the heat is removed (invented by Löff in 1830). None of these arrangments is actually a siphon in the physicist's sense. The siphon tube used in irrigation, and perhaps Thomson's siphon recorder of 1858, do use the siphon principle. The occasional spelling "syphon" is not supported by the Greek source.

In some cases, especially in plumbing, siphon action is not desired, especially when it may allow dirty water to mix with clean. In these cases, vacuum breakers may be used at high points to prevent this. Siphons work because of atmospheric pressure, and would not operate in a vacuum. In the case of water, pressure reduction would eventually reach the vapor pressure and the water would boil. Mercury, which has a very low vapor pressure, would simply separate leaving a Torricellian vacuum. The siphon would be re-established if the pressure is restored. A liquid column is unstable under a negative pressure.

Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647), Galileo's student and secretary, a member of the Florentine Academy of Experiments, invented the mercury barometer in 1643, and brought the weight of the atmosphere to light. The mercury column was held up by the pressure of the atmosphere, not by horror vacui as Aristotle had supposed. Torricelli's early death was a blow to science, but his ideas were furthered by Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pascal had a barometer carried up the 1465 m high Puy de Dôme, an extinct volcano in the Auvergne just west of his home of Clermont-Ferrand in 1648 by Périer, his brother-in-law. Pascal's experimentum crucis is one of the triumphs of early modern science. The Puy de Dôme is not the highest peak in the Massif Central--the Puy de Sancy, at 1866 m is, but it was the closest. Clermont is now the centre of the French pneumatics industry.

The remarkable Otto von Guericke (1602-1686), Burgomeister of Magdeburg, Saxony, took up the cause, making the first vacuum pump, which he used in vivid demonstrations of the pressure of the atmosphere to the Imperial Diet at Regensburg in 1654. Famously, he evacuated a sphere consisting of two well-fitting hemispheres about a foot in diameter, and showed that 16 horses, 8 on each side, could not pull them apart. An original vacuum pump and hemispheres from 1663 are shown at the right (photo edited from the Deutsches Museum; see link below). He also showed that air had weight, and how much force it did require to separate evacuated hemispheres. Then, in England, Robert Hooke (1635-1703) made a vacuum pump for Robert Boyle (1627-1691). Christian Huygens (1629-1695) became interested in a visit to London in 1661 and had a vacuum pump built for him. By this time, Torricelli's doctrine had triumphed over the Church's support for horror vacui. This was one of the first victories for rational physics over the illusions of experience, and is well worth consideration.

Pascal demonstrated that the siphon worked by atmospheric pressure, not by horror vacui, by means of the apparatus shown at the left. The two beakers of mercury are connected by a three-way tube as shown, with the upper branch open to the atmosphere. As the large container is filled with water, pressure on the free surfaces of the mercury in the beakers pushes mercury into the tubes. When the state shown is reached, the beakers are connected by a mercury column, and the siphon starts, emptying the upper beaker and filling the lower. The mercury has been open to the atmosphere all this time, so if there were any horror vacui, it could have flowed in at will to soothe itself.

The mm of mercury is sometimes called a torr after Torricelli, and Pascal also has been honoured by a unit of pressure, a newton per square metre or 10 dyne/cm2. A cubic centimetre of air weighs 1.293 mg under standard conditions, and a cubic metre 1.293 kg, so air is by no means even approximately weightless, though it seems so. The weight of a sphere of air as small as 10 cm in diameter is 0.68 g, easily measurable with a chemical balance. The pressure of the atmosphere is also considerable, like being 34 ft under water, but we do not notice it. A bar is 106 dyne/cm2, very close to a standard atmosphere, which is 1.01325 bar. In meteorolgy, the millibar, mb, is used. 1 mb = 1.333 mmHg = 100 Pa = 1000 dyne/cm2. A kilogram-force per square centimeter is 981,000 dyne/cm2, also close to one atmosphere. In Europe, it has been considered approximately 1 atm, as in tire pressures and other engineering applications. As we have seen, in English units the atmosphere is about 14.7 psi, and this figure can be used to find other approximate equivalents. For example, 1 psi = 51.7 mmHg. In Britain, tons per square inch has been used for large pressures. The ton in this case is 2240 lb, not the American short ton. 1 tsi = 2240 psi, 1 tsf = 15.5 psi (about an atmosphere!).

The fluid in question here is air, which is by no means incompressible. As we rise in the atmosphere and the pressure decreases, the air also expands. To see what happens in this case, we can make use of the ideal gas equation of state, p = ρRT/M, and assume that the temperature T is constant. Then the change of pressure in a change of altitude dh is dp = -ρg dh = -(pM/RT)gdh, or dp/p = -(Mg/RT)dh. This is a little harder to integrate than before, but the result is ln p = -Mgh/RT + C, or ln(p/p0) = -Mgh/RT, or finally p = p0exp(-Mgh/RT). In an isothermal atmosphere, the pressure decreases exponentially. The quantity H = RT/Mg is called the "height of the homogeneous atmosphere" or the scale height, and is about 8 km at T = 273K. This quantity gives the rough scale of the decrease of pressure with height. Of course, the real atmosphere is by no means isothermal close to the ground, but cools with height nearly linearly at about 6.5°C/km up to an altitude of about 11 km at middle latitudes, called the tropopause. Above this is a region of nearly constant temperature, the stratosphere, and then at some higher level the atmosphere warms again to near its value at the surface. Of course, there are variations from the average values. When the temperature profile with height is known, we can find the pressure by numerical integration quite easily.

The atmospheric pressure is of great importance in meteorology, since it determines the winds, which generally move at right angles to the direction of most rapid change of pressure, that is, along the isobars, which are contours of constant pressure. Certain typical weather patterns are associated with relatively high and relatively low pressures, and how they vary with time. The barometric pressure may be given in popular weather forecasts, though few people know what to do with it. If you live at a high altitude, your local weather reporter may report the pressure to be, say, 29.2 inches, but if you have a real barometer, you may well find that it is closer to 25 inches. At an elevation of 1500 m (near Denver, or the top of the Puy de Dôme), the atmospheric pressure is about 635 mm, and water boils at 95 °C. In fact, altitude is quite a problem in meteorology, since pressures must be measured at a common level to be meaningful. The barometric pressures quoted in the news are reduced to sea level by standard formulas, that amount to assuming that there is a column of air from your feet to sea level with a certain temperature distribution, and adding the weight of this column to the actual barometric pressure. This is only an arbitrary 'fix' and leads to some strange conclusions, such as the permanent winter highs above high plateaus that are really imaginary.

The Hydraulic Lever

A cylinder and piston is a chamber of variable volume, a mechanism for transforming pressure to force. If A is the area of the cylinder, and p the pressure of the fluid in it, then F = pA is the force on the piston. If the piston moves outwards a distance dx, then the change in volume is dV = A dx. The work done by the fluid in this displacement is dW = F dx = pA dx = p dV. If the movement is slow enough that inertia and viscosity forces are negligible, then hydrostatics will still be valid. A process for which this is true is called quasi-static. Now consider two cylinders, possibly of different areas A and A', connected with each other and filled with fluid. For simplicity, suppose that there are no gravitational forces. Then the pressure is the same, p, in both cylinders. If the fluid is incompressible, then dV + dV' = 0, so that dW = p dV + p dV' = F dx + F' dx' = 0. This says the work done on one piston is equal to the work done by the other piston: the conservation of energy. The ratio of the forces on the pistons is F' / F = A' / A, the same as the ratio of the areas, and the ratios of the displacements dx' / dx = F / F' = A / A' is in the inverse ratio of the areas. This mechanism is the hydrostatic analogue of the lever, and is the basis of hydraulic activation.

The most famous application of this principle is the Bramah hydraulic press, invented in 1785 by Joseph Bramah (1748-1814), who also invented many other useful machines, including a lock and a toilet. Now, it was not very remarkable to see the possibility of a hydraulic press; what was remarkable was to find a way to seal the large cylinder properly. This was the crucial problem that Bramah solved by his leather seal that was held against the cylinder and the piston by the hydraulic pressure itself.

In the presence of gravity, p' = p + ρgh, where h is the difference in elevation of the two cylinders. Now, p' dV' = -dV (p + ρgh) =-p dV - (ρ dV)gh, or the net work done in the process is p' dV' + p dV = -dM gh, where dM is the mass of fluid displaced from the lower cylinder to the upper cylinder. Again, energy is conserved if we take into account the potential energy of the fluid. Pumps are seen to fall within the province of hydrostatics if their operation is quasi-static, which means that dynamic or inertia forces are negligible.


Pumps are used to move or raise fluids. They are not only very useful, but are excellent examples of hydrostatics. Pumps are of two general types, hydrostatic or positive displacement pumps, and pumps depending on dynamic forces, such as centrifugal pumps. Here we will only consider positive displacement pumps, which can be understood purely by hydrostatic considerations. They have a piston (or equivalent) moving in a closely-fitting cylinder, and forces are exerted on the fluid by motion of the piston. We have already seen an important example of this in the hydraulic lever or hydraulic press, which we have called quasi-static. The simplest pump is the syringe, filled by withdrawing the piston and emptied by pressing it back in, as its port is immersed in the fluid or removed from it.

More complicated pumps have valves allowing them to work repetitively. These are usually check valves that open to allow passage in one direction, and close automatically to prevent reverse flow. There are many kinds of valves, and they are usually the most trouble-prone and complicated part of a pump. The force pump has two check valves in the cylinder, one for supply and the other for delivery. The supply valve opens when the cylinder volume increases, the delivery valve when the cylinder volume decreases. The lift pump has a supply valve, and a valve in the piston that allows the liquid to pass around it when the volume of the cylinder is reduced. The delivery in this case is from the upper part of the cylinder which the piston does not enter. Diaphragm pumps are force pumps in which the oscillating diaphragm takes the place of the piston. The diaphragm may be moved mechanically, or by the pressure of the fluid on one side of the diaphragm.

Some positive displacement pumps are shown at the right. The force and lift pumps are typically used for water. The force pump has two valves in the cylinder, while the lift pump has a one valve in the cylinder and one in the piston. The maximum lift, or "suction," is determined by the atmospheric pressure, and either cylinder must be within this height of the free surface. The force pump, however, can give an arbitrarily large pressure to the discharged fluid, as in the case of a diesel engine injector. A nozzle can be used to convert the pressure to velocity, to produce a jet, as for fire fighting. Fire fighting force pumps usually had two cylinders feeding one receiver alternately. The air space in the receiver helped to make the water pressure uniform.

The three pumps on the right are typically used for air, but would be equally applicable to liquids. The Roots blower has no valves, their place taken by the sliding contact between the rotors and the housing. The Roots blower can either exhaust a receiver or provide air under moderate pressure, in large volumes. The bellows is a very old device, requiring no accurate machining. The single valve is in one or both sides of the expandable chamber. Another valve can be placed at the nozzle if required. The valve can be a piece of soft leather held close to holes in the chamber. The bicycle pump uses the valve on the valve stem of the tire or inner tube to hold pressure in the tire. The piston, which is attached to the discharge tube, has a flexible seal that seals when the cylinder is moved to compress the air, but allows air to pass when the movement is reversed. Diaphragm and vane pumps are not shown, but they act the same way by varying the volume of a chamber, and directing the flow with check valves.

Pumps were applied to the dewatering of mines, a very necessary process as mines became deeper. Newcomen's atmospheric engine was invented to supply the power for pumping. The first engine may have been erected in Cornwall in 1710, but the Dudley Castle engine of 1712 is much better known and thoroughly documented. The first pumps used in Cornwall were called bucket pumps, which we recognize as lift pumps, with the pistons somewhat miscalled buckets. They pumped on the up-stroke, when a clack in the bottom of the pipe opened and allowed water to enter beneath the piston. At the same time, the piston lifted the column of water above it, which could be of any length. The piston could only "suck" water 33 ft, or 28 ft more practically, of course, but this occurred at the bottom of the shaft, so this was only a limit on the piston stroke. On the down stroke, a clack in the bucket opened, allowing it to sink through the water to the bottom, where it would be ready to make another lift.

More satisfactory were the plunger pumps, also placed at the bottom of the shaft. A plunger displaced volume in a chamber, forcing the water in it through a check valve up the shaft, when it descended. When it rose, water entered the pump chamber through a clack, as in the bucket pump. Only the top of the plunger had to be packed; it was not necessary that it fit the cylinder accurately. In this case, the engine at the surface lifted the heavy pump rods on the up-stroke. When the atmospheric engine piston returned, the heavy timber pump rods did the actual pumping, borne down by their weight.

A special application for pumps is to produce a vacuum by exhausting a container, called the receiver. Hawksbee's dual cylinder pump, designed in the 18th century, is the final form of the air pump invented by Guericke by 1654. A good pump could probably reach about 5-10 mmHg, the limit set by the valves. The cooperation of the cylinders made the pump much easier to work when the pressure was low. In the diagram, piston A is descending, helped by the partial vacuum remaining below it, while piston B is rising, filling with the low-pressure air from the receiver. The bell-jar receiver, invented by Huygens, is shown; previously, a cumbersome globe was the usual receiver. Tate's air pump is a 19th century pump that would be used for simple vacuum demonstrations and for utility purposes in the lab. It has no valves on the low-pressure side, jsut exhaust valves V, V', so it could probably reach about 1 mmHg. It is operated by pushing and pulling the handle H. At the present day, motor-driven rotary-seal pumps sealed by running in oil are used for the same purpose. At the right is Sprengel's pump, with the valves replaced by drops of mercury. Small amounts of gas are trapped at the top of the fall tube as the mercury drops, and moves slowly down the fall tube as mercury is steadily added, coming out at the bottom carrying the air with it. The length of the fall tube must be greater than the barometric height, of course. Theoretically, a vacuum of about 1 μm can be obtained with a Sprengel pump, but it is very slow and can only evacuate small volumes. Later, Langmuir's mercury diffusion pump, which was much faster, replaced Sprengel pumps, and led to oil diffusion pumps that can reach very high vacua.

The column of water or hydrostatic engine is the inverse of the force pump, used to turn a large head (pressure) of water into rotary motion. It looks like a steam engine, with valves operated by valve gear, but of course is not a heat engine and can be of high efficiency. However, it is not of as high efficiency as a turbine, and is much more complicated, but has the advantage that it can be operated at variable speeds, as for lifting. A few very impressive column of water engines were made in the 19th century, but they were never popular and remained rare. Richard Trevithick, famous for high pressure steam engines, also built hydrostatic engines in Cornwall. The photograph at the right shows a column-of-water engine built by Georg von Reichenbach, and placed in service in 1917. This engine was exhibited in the Deutsches Museum in München as late as 1977. It was used to pump brine for the Bavarian state salt industry. A search of the museum website did not reveal any evidence of it, but a good drawing of another brine pump, with four cylinders and driven by a water wheel, also built by von Reichenbach was found. This machine, a Solehebemaschine ("brine-lifting machine"), entered service in 1821. It had two pressure-operated poppet valves for each cylinder. These engines are brass to resist corrosion by the salt water. Water pressure engines must be designed taking into account the incompressibility of water, so both valves must not close at the same time, and abrupt changes of rate of flow must not be made. Air chambers can be used to eliminate shocks.

Georg von Reichenbach (1771-1826) is much better known as an optical designer than as a mechanical engineer. He was associated with Joseph Fraunhofer, and they died within days of each other in 1826. He was of an aristocratic family, and was Salinenrat, or manager of the state salt works, in southeastern Bavaria, which was centred on the town of Reichenhall, now Bad Reichenhall, near Salzburg. The name derives from "rich in salt." This famous salt region had salt springs flowing nearly saturated brine, at 24% to 26% (saturated is 27%) salt, that from ancient times had been evaporated over wood fires. A brine pipeline to Traunstein was constructed in 1617-1619, since wood fuel for evaporating the brine was exhausted in Reichenhall. The pipeline was further extended to Rosenheim, where there was turf as well as wood, in 1818-10. Von Reichenbach is said to have built this pipeline, for which he designed a water-wheel-driven, four-barrel pump. Maximilian I, King of Bavaria, commissioned von Reichenbach to bring brine from Berchtesgaden, elevation 530 m, to Reichenhall, elevation 470 m, over a summit 943 m high. The pump shown in the photograph pumped brine over this line, entering service in 1816. Fresh water was also allowed to flow down to the salt beds, and the brine was then pumped to the surface. This was a much easier way to mine salt than underground mining. The salt industry of Bad Reichenhall still operates, but it is now Japanese-owned.

Forces on Submerged Surfaces

Suppose we want to know the force exerted on a vertical surface of any shape with water on one side, assuming gravity to act, and the pressure on the surface of the water zero. We have already solved this problem by a geometrical argument, but now we apply calculus, which is easier but not as illuminating. The force on a small area dA a distance x below the surface of the water is dF = p dA = ρgx dA, and the moment of this force about a point on the surface is dM = px dA = ρgx2 dA. By integration, we can find the total force F, and the depth at which it acts, c = M / F. If the surface is not symmetrical, the position of the total force in the transverse direction can be obtained from the integral of dM' = ρgxy dA, the moment about some vertical line in the plane of the surface. If there happens to be a pressure on the free surface of the water, then the forces due to this pressure can be evaluated separately and added to this result. We must add a force equal to the area of the surface times the additional pressure, and a moment e qual to the product of this force and the distance to the centroid of the surface.

The simplest case is a rectangular gate of width w, and height h, whose top is a distance H below the surface of the water. In this case, the integrations are very easy, and F = ρgw[(h + H)2 - h2]/2 = ρgH(H + 2h)/2 = ρg(h + H/2)Hw. The total force on the gate is equal to its area times the pressure at its centre. M = ρgw[(h + H)3 - h3]/3 = ρg(H2/3 + Hh + h2)Hw, so that c = (H2/3 + Hh + h2)/(h + H/2). In the simple case of h = 0, c = 2H/3, or two-thirds of the way from the top to the bottom of the gate. If we take the atmospheric pressure to act not only on the surface of the water, but also the dry side of the gate, there is no change to this result. This is the reason atmospheric pressure often seems to have been neglected in solving subh problems.

Consider a curious rectangular tank, with one side vertical but the opposite side inclined inwards or outwards. The horizontal forces exerted by the water on the two sides must be equal and opposite, or the tank would scoot off. If the side is inclined outwards, then there must be a downwards vertical force equal to the weight of the water above it, and passing through the centroid of this water. If the side is inclined inwards, there must be an upwards vertical force equal to the weight of the 'missing' water above it. In both cases, the result is demanded by ordinary statics. What we have here has been called the 'hydrostatic paradox.' It was conceived by the celebrated Flemish engineer Simon Stevin (1548-1620) of Brugge, the first modern scientist to investigate the statics of fluids and solids. Consider three tanks with bottoms of equal sizes and equal heights, filled with water. The pressures at the bottoms are equal, so the vertical force on the bottom of each tank is the same. But suppose that one tank has vertical sides, one has sides inclined inward, and third sides inclined outwards. The tanks do not contain the same weight of water, yet the forces on their bottoms are equal! I am sure that you can spot the resolution of this paradox.

Sometimes the forces are required on curved surfaces. The vertical and horizontal components can be found by considering the equilibrium of volumes with a plane surface equal to the projected area of the curved surface in that direction. The general result is usually a force plus a couple, since the horizontal and vertical forces are not necessarily in the same plane. Simple surfaces, such as cylinders, spheres and cones, may often be easy to solve. In general, however, it is necessary to sum the forces and moments numerically on each element of area, and only in simple cases can this be done analytically.

If a volume of fluid is accelerated uniformly, the acceleration can be added to the acceleration of gravity. A free surface now becomes perpendicular to the total acceleration, and the pressure is proportional to the distance from this surface. The same can be done for a rotating fluid, where the centrifugal acceleration is the important quantity. The earth's atmosphere is an example. When air moves relative to the rotating system, the Coriolis force must also be taken into account. However, these are dynamic effects and are not strictly a part of hydrostatics.


Archimedes, so the legend runs, was asked to determine if the goldsmith who made a golden crown for Hieron, Tyrant of Syracuse, had substituted cheaper metals for gold. The story is told by Vitruvius. A substitution could not be detected by simply weighing the crown, since it was craftily made to the same weight as the gold supplied for its construction. Archimedes realized that finding the density of the crown, that is, the weight per unit volume, would give the answer. The weight was known, of course, and Archimedes cunningly measured its volume by the amount of water that ran off when it was immersed in a vessel filled to the brim. By comparing the results for the crown, and for pure gold, it was found that the crown displaced more water than an equal weight of gold, and had, therefore, been adulterated.

This story, typical of the charming way science was made more interesting in classical times, may or may not actually have taken place, but whether it did or not, Archimedes taught that a body immersed in a fluid lost apparent weight equal to the weight of the fluid displaced, called Archimedes' Principle. Specific gravity, the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water, can be determined by weighing the body in air, and then in water. The specific gravity is the weight in air divided by the loss in weight when immersed. This avoids the difficult determination of the exact volume of the sample.

To see how buoyancy works, consider a submerged brick, of height h, width w and length l. The difference in pressure on top and bottom of the brick is ρgh, so the difference in total force on top and bottom of the brick is simply (ρgh)(wl) = ρgV, where V is the volume of the brick. The forces on the sides have no vertical components, so they do not matter. The net upward force is the weight of a volume V of the fluid of density ρ. Any body can be considered made up of brick shapes, as small as desired, so the result applies in general. This is just the integral calculus in action, or the application of Professor Thomson's analogy.

Consider a man in a rowboat on a lake, with a large rock in the boat. He throws the rock into the water. What is the effect on the water level of the lake? Suppose you make a drink of ice water with ice cubes floating in it. What happens to the water level in the glass when the ice has melted?

The force exerted by the water on the bottom of a boat acts through the centre of gravity B of the displaced volume, or centre of buoyancy, while the force exerted by gravity on the boat acts through its own centre of gravity G. This looks bad for the boat, since the boat's c.g. will naturally be higher than the c.g. of the displaced water, so the boat will tend to capsize. Well, a board floats, and can tell us why. Should the board start to rotate to one side, or heel, the displaced volume immediately moves to that side, and the buoyant force tends to correct the rotation. A floating body will be stable provided the line of action of the buoyant force passes through a point M above the c.g. of the body, called the metacentre, so that there is a restoring couple when the boat heels. A ship with an improperly designed hull will not float. It is not as easy to make boats as it might appear.

Let Bo be the centre of buoyancy with the ship upright; that is, it is the centre of gravity of the volume V of the displaced water. γV = W, the weight of the ship. If the ship heels by an angle Δθ, a wedge-shaped volume of water is added on the right, and an equal volume is removed on the left, so that V remains constant. The centre of buoyancy is then moved to the right to point B. We can find the x-coordinate of B by taking moments of the volumes about the y-axis. Therefore, V (BoB) = V(0) + moment of the shaded volume - moment of the equal compensating volume. If dA is an element of area in the y=0 plane, then the volume element is xΔθdA (this automatically makes the volume to the left of x=0 negative), and the moment is this times x. Note that contributions from x>0 and x<0 are both positive, as they should be. Now, ∫x2dA is just the moment of inertia of the water-level area of the ship, I. Therefore, V(BoB) = IΔθ. Now, (BoB)/Δθ = (MBo), since for small Δθ the tangent is equal to the angle. Finally, then, (MG) = (I/V) - (BoG).

The moment tending to restore the ship to upright is W times the righting arm GZ = MG x Δθ. Therefore, the ship tends to roll with a certain period. A small GM means a small restoring torque, and so a long roll period. A ship with a small GM is said to be tender, which is desirable for passenger ships and for gun platforms (warships). A passenger ship may have a roll period of 28s or so, while a cargo ship may have a period of 13-15s. A ship with a large GM and a short roll period is called stiff. Metacentric heights are typically 1 to 2 metres.

The combination of a small GM and a small freeboard was originally considered desirable for a warship, since it made a stable gun platform and presented a minimum area that had to be armoured. HMS Captain, an early turret ironclad launced in 1869, was such a ship. The ship capsized off Finisterre in 1870 in a gale when the topsails were not taken in promptly enough and the ship heeled beyond its 14° maximum. HMS Sultan, a broadside ironclad launched in 1870, had metacentric height of only 3 feet for stability, but proved unsafe for Atlantic service.

The free surface effect can greatly reduce the stability of a ship. For example, if the hull has taken water, when the ship heels this weight moves to the low side and counters the buoyancy that should give the ship stability. Longitudinal baffles reduce the effect (division into thirds reduces the effect by a factor of 9), and are absolutely necessary for ships like tankers. In 2006, imprudent shifting of ballast water caused MV Cougar Ace, with its cargo of Mazdas, to list 80°. The ship was eventually righted, however, since it did not take water. A list, incidentally, is a permanent heel.

Longitudinal stability against pitching is analyzed similarly.

Archimedes's Principle can also be applied to balloons. The Montgolfier brothers' hot air balloon with a paper envelope ascended first in 1783 (the brothers got Pilâtre de Rozier and Chevalier d'Arlandes to go up in it). Such "fire balloons" were then replaced with hydrogen-filled balloons, and then with balloons filled with coal gas, which was easier to obtain and did not diffuse through the envelope quite as rapidly. Methane would be a good filler, with a density 0.55 that of air. Slack balloons, like most large ones, can be contrasted with taut balloons with an elastic envelope, such as weather balloons. Slack balloons will not be filled full on the ground, and will plump up at altitude. Balloons are naturally stable, since the center of buoyancy is above the center of gravity in all practical balloons. Submarines are yet another application of buoyancy, with their own characteristic problems.

Small neoprene or natural rubber balloons have been used for meteorological observations, with hydrogen filling. A 10g ceiling balloon was about 17" in diameter when inflated to have a free lift of 40g. It ascended 480ft the first minute, 670ft in a minute and a half, and 360ft per minute afterwards, to find cloud ceilings by timing, up to 2500ft, when it subtended about 2' of arc, easily seen in binoculars. Large sounding balloons were used to lift a radiosonde and a parachute for its recovery. An AN/AMT-2 radiosonde of the 1950's weighed 1500g, the paper parachute 100g, and the balloon 350g. The balloon was inflated to give 800g free lift, so it would rise 700-800 ft/min to an altitude of about 50,000 ft (15 km) before it burst. This balloon was about 6 ft in diameter when inflated at the surface, 3 ft in diameter before inflation. The information was returned by radio telemetry, so the balloon did not have to be followed optically. Of intermediate size was the pilot balloon, which was followed with a theodolite to determine wind directions and speeds. At night, a pilot balloon could carry a light for ceiling determinations.

The greatest problem with using hydrogen for lift is that it diffuses rapidly through many substances. Weather balloons had to be launched promptly after filling, or the desired free lift would not be obtained. Helium is a little better in this respect, but it also diffuses rapidly. The lift obtained with helium is almost the same as with hydrogen (density 4 compared to 2, where air is 28.97). However, helium is exceedingly rare, and only its unusual occurrence in natural gas from Kansas makes it available. Great care must be taken when filling balloons with hydrogen to avoid sparks and the accumulation of hydrogen in air, since hydrogen is exceedingly flammable and explosive over a wide range of concentrations. Helium has the great advantage that it is not inflammable.

The hydrogen for filling weather balloons came from compressed gas in cylinders, from the reaction of granulated aluminium with sodium hydroxide and water, or from the reaction of calcium hydroxide with water. The chemical reactions are 2Al + 2NaOH + 2H2O → 2NaAlO2 + 3H2, or CaH2 + 2H2O → Ca(OH) 2 + 2H2. In the first, silicon or zinc could be used instead of aluminium, and in the second, any similar metal hydride. Both are rather expensive sources of hydrogen, but very convenient when only small amounts are required. Most hydrogen is made from the catalytic decomposition of hydrocarbons, or the reaction of hot coke with steam. Electrolysis of water is an expensive source, since more energy is used than is recovered with the hydrogen. Any enthusiasm for a "hydrogen economy" should be tempered by the fact that there are no hydrogen wells, and all the hydrogen must be made with an input of energy usually greater than that available from the hydrogen, and often with the appearance of carbon. Although about 60,000 Btu/lb is available from hydrogen, compared to 20,000 Btu/lb from gasoline, hydrogen compressed to 1000 psi requires 140 times as much volume for the same weight as gasoline. For the energy content of a 13-gallon gasoline tank, a 600-gallon hydrogen tank would be required. The critical temperature of hydrogen is 32K, so liquid storage is out of the question for general use.

Measurement of Specific Gravity

The specific gravity of a material is the ratio of the mass (or weight) of a certain sample of it to the mass (or weight) of an equal volume of water, the conventional reference material. In the metric system, the density of water is 1 g/cc, which makes the specific gravity numerically equal to the density. Strictly speaking, density has the dimensions g/cc, while specific gravity is a dimensionless ratio. However, in casual speech the two are often confounded. In English units, however, density, perhaps in lb/cuft or pcf, is numerically different from the specific gravity, since the weight of water is 62.5 lb/cuft.

Things are complicated by the variation of the density of water with temperature, and also by the confusion that gave us the distinction between cc and ml. The milliliter is the volume of 1.0 g of water at 4°C, by definition. The actual volume of 1.0 g of water at 4°C is 0.999973 cm3 by measurement. Since most densities are not known, or needed, to more than three significant figures, it is clear that this difference is of no practical importance, and the ml can be taken equal to the cc. The density of water at 0°C is 0.99987 g/ml, at 20° 0.99823, and at 100°C 0.95838. The temperature dependence of the density may have to be taken into consideration in accurate work. Mercury, while we are at it, has a density 13.5955 at 0°C, and 13.5461 at 20°C.

The basic idea in finding specific gravity is to weigh a sample in air, and then immersed in water. Then the specific gravity is W/(W - W'), if W is the weight in air, and W' the weight immersed. The denominator is just the buoyant force, the weight of a volume of water equal to the volume of the sample. This can be carried out with an ordinary balance, but special balances, such as the Jolly balance, have been created specifically for this application. Adding an extra weight to the sample allows measurement of specific gravities less than 1.

A pycnometer is a flask with a close-fitting ground glass stopper with a fine hole through it, so a given volume can be accurately obtained. The name comes from the Greek puknos, a word meaning "density." If the flask is weighed empty, full of water, and full of a liquid whose specific gravity is desired, the specific gravity of the liquid can easily be calculated. A sample in the form of a powder, to which the usual method of weighing cannot be used, can be put into the pycnometer. The weight of the powder and the weight of the displaced water can be determined, and from them the specific gravity of the powder.

The specific gravity of a liquid can be found with a collection of small weighted, hollow spheres that will just float in certain specific gravities. The closest spheres that will just float and just sink put limits on the specific gravity of the liquid. This method was once used in Scotland to determine the amount of alcohol in distilled liquors. Since the density of a liquid decreases as the temperature increases, the spheres that float are an indication of the temperature of the liquid. Galileo's thermometer worked this way.

A better instrument is the hydrometer, which consists of a weighted float and a calibrated stem that protrudes from the liquid when the float is entirely immersed. A higher specific gravity will result in a greater length of the stem above the surface, while a lower specific gravity will cause the hydrometer to float lower. The small cross-sectional area of the stem makes the instrument very sensitive. Of course, it must be calibrated against standards. In most cases, the graduations ("degrees") are arbitrary and reference is made to a table to determine the specific gravities. Hydrometers are used to determine the specific gravity of lead-acid battery electrolyte, and the concentration of antifreeze compounds in engine coolants, as well as the alcohol content of whiskey.


J. T. Bottomley, Hydrostatics (London: William Collins, 1882). Found in a used-bookshop for 10p ($0.20). For "school science," with no calculus but excellent, painstaking explanation and practical applications. 142pp.

S. L. Loney, Elements of Hydrostatics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1956) 2nd ed. (1904). Also for schools, 253pp. Some calculus in an appendix.

R. L. Daugherty and J. B. Franzini, Fluid Mechanics, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965). Chapter 2. A typical engineering treatment in a classic text, of course with calculus.

For more information on the barometer and diffusion pump, see the article on Mercury.

The website of the Deutsches Museum is positively excellent. This is the best science museum in the world. It has not become mostly a medium of entertainment and advertising, as so many others have, but where you can still see original and unusual artifacts. The website contains actual information for others than children, and is well-illustrated. Unfortunately, it does not have illustrations of most of the exhibits, only selected ones, so it does not make it possible to visit the museum from where you are. Such a resource would be very welcome, and would rise above internet shallowness. Knowing German helps a lot, of course, but there is random English here and there.

A. Wolf, A History of Science, Technology and Philosophy in the 16th and 17th Centuries, 2nd ed., Vol. I (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968). The index is in Vol II.

J. C. Poggendorff, Geschichte der Physik, (1878). Facsimile reprint by Zentral-Antiquariat der DDR, 1964.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 11 May 2000
Last revised 5 January 2007