How did the fountains of Versailles work?

In 1661, the young king of France, Louis XIV, visited Vaux, the superb new estate of the French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet. As the king strolled around the grounds admiring the elegant lawns and topiary, hundreds of fountains spurted jets of water high into the air. Louis was startled, and greatly impressed, but inwardly he was indignant. How dare a commoner flaunt such ostentation before the king? He, Louis, would put the upstart in his place by building the greatest palace and gardens on Earth at his favorite home - a small royal hunting lodge at Versailles, an insignificant village 11 miles (18 kilometers) southwest of Paris.

Within three weeks Fouquet had been arrested on a charge of embezzlement and his advisers the architect Louis le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun, and garden designer Andre le Notre - engaged by the king. At that time Versailles's only claim to fame was the 20-room lodge built by Louis' father in 1624. Now it was to host elaborate gardens similar to those of Vaux, but on a far grander scale.


More than 1000 grandiose fountains were planned, with waterfalls and large reflecting pools, but there was one major obstacle: the estate was situated on high ground and the nearby stream was too small to provide a reliable supply of water.


Defying the laws of nature


Nevertheless, some 1,400 fountains and waterfalls - of which 600 remain today - were built. The stream was dammed and the water raised to a reservoir near the lodge by horse-driven pumps and windmills. When two extra pumps installed to supplement the meagre supply failed to do the job, an engineer, Arnold de Ville, suggested piping water to Versailles from the king's estate at Marly, on the River Seine. 5 miles (8 kilometers) to the east.

In 1678, a huge pumping plant, the Machine de Marly, was constructed across the river. Groups of pumps - 253 in all - were driven by 14 huge waterwheels 39 feet (12 meters) across, and, over the distance of a mile, raised the water in three stages into a series of reservoirs. The highest of these lay 502 feet (153 meters) above the Seine, and from here, the water flowed down to Versailles in cast iron pipes.


The Machine de Marly should have provided more than 1.3 million gallons (6 million liters) of water daily, but it never managed to raise more than half of that. By 1685, it was clear that Versailles would require more water, and a plan was made to divert the River Eure, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the west.


The French army was ordered to build a gigantic aqueduct, with arches twice as high as the towers of Notre Dame, but in 1688 France went to war and the 30,000 workers downed tools to take up arms. Work was never resumed.

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