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300-Year-Old Fire Engine Pump Unlocks Secrets Of Heart’s Function

Researchers study ancient Yorkshire technology to enhance understanding of heart mechanics

A 300-year-old fire engine pump from Yorkshire could unlock secrets of how the heart works, according to a new study.


The research team peered back in time to study the British technology behind hoses that provide steady streams of water for the first time. And now they are looking to apply it to the human heart in a bid to better understand how the major organ works.


The study, published in the American Journal of Physics, examined a Yorkshire fire engine from 1725 and its ‘Windkessel’ system to understand the ancient technology better and explore ways of improving it.


In 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, bucket brigades were the best line of defense against unwanted flames. Due to a lack of other firefighting options available in the 17th Century, almost all of the city’s tightly packed wooden homes were razed. The infamous disaster destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and dozens of churches and demonstrated the need for better methods to fight flames in the future.


A landmark advancement was made with the invention of what were known as ‘sucking worms’; leather hoses attached to manually-operated pumps. Then came the Windkessel: a chamber in the bottom of a wooden wagon that compressed air to pump water continuously through a hose, creating a steady, flowing stream of water.


The researchers, headed by Dr. Trevor Lipscombe from the Catholic University of America, became inspired by a fire engine from Newsham, North Yorkshire, dating back to 1725. Dr. Lipscombe and his team began analyzing the Windkessel effect of the fire engine’s pressure chamber to understand the physics behind the widely used technology that has lasted until today.


“There are many fascinating physics problems hiding in plain sight within books and papers written centuries ago. Recently, we’ve been working on applying elementary fluid mechanics to biological systems, and came across a common description in medical journals: that the heart acts as a Windkessel,” said Dr. Lipscombe.


“That begs the question of what, precisely, is a Windkessel? Following the trail, we found descriptions of Lofting’s ‘sucking worm’ device and, in Newsham’s fire engine, a lifesaving application,” he added.


To pinpoint the most influential factors in the Windkessel effect, Dr. Lipscombe compared the initial state of the chamber, the rate at which bucket brigades could pour water in (volumetric inflow), the length of time pressure builds and the effects on output flow rate.


“When faced with Lofting’s design, or the Newsham fire engine, a physicist wants to sort out the basic science involved – simply because it’s there,” explained Dr. Lipscombe.


“It’s the joy of doing physics. But also, there’s a pedagogical aspect. Our article builds a simple model that shows how a Newsham fire engine works. We’re partly answering the ‘when will I ever use this stuff?’ question,”  he added.


Dr. Lipscombe and his team next plan to examine the physiological Windkessel involved in the heart-aorta system. In doing so, it’s hoped current instruments could be made even better.

“Knowledge of Bernoulli’s law, the ideal gas law, and isothermal expansion are the three ingredients we baked into a model to explore how this device worked,” added Dr. Lipscombe.


“But if we understand this system better, we could look at the parameters that are important and see how changing them might improve the device,” he continued.

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

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