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The Pumps Of New Orleans
Most of New Orleans is below sea level, and a good rainfall used to submerge it—until A. Baldwin Wood designed and installed a massive system of pumps to drain 20 million gallons a minute
Fall 1992 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Initially the city council (whose approval was needed for large projects) wanted to turn down Wood’s plan. It had no confidence in the young engineer who, unpaid, had spent his evenings designing the novel pump. But eventually the council was prevailed upon, and a $159,000 contract was awarded to the Nordberg Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee for thirteen patented Wood screw pumps. By the end of 1915 the city had installed the first eleven and was on its way to constructing one of the largest pumping facilities in the world.
Wood’s design placed impellers at the summit of a pipe siphon that emerges from the concrete floor of the pump house. Priming is achieved by rotary vacuum pumps; the vacuum is broken simply by admitting air into the casing before stopping the pump. The casing is split horizontally to allow easy access to the pump’s interior. The pumps are self-oiling, the bearings do not come in contact with water or grit, and there are no valves or gates between the turbine and the in-take and discharge canals. The pumps generate very little vibration, so they do not require heavy foundations. On a later device, the Wood trash pump, the blades and pump casing are so rounded that nothing can get caught on them—stockings, rags, two-by-fours, whatever finds its way into a New Orleans sewer. In the old days engineers had to open the pumps and clean them out every eight hours of operation. A Wood trash pump has yet to be opened for cleaning.
As New Orleans became famous for its herculean drainage facilities, other cities and countries tried to lure Wood away with fatter paychecks. London offered him a full-time job, but he turned it down twice. Over the years he was retained as a consultant by private and public agencies in cities in the United States, Canada, and Europe. His one condition for outside work was that he not have to leave New Orleans. After thirty-two years with the water board, Wood’s salary was only $7,500.
Wood’s pumps saw service in China, Egypt, and India. His biggest international project was the Zuyder Zee in Holland, where a line of pumping stations stretched across inundated farmland from Amsterdam to Zwolle. Wood never set foot in Holland, but he did send blueprints to the Dutch engineers. When they were unable to follow the plans, he invited them to the United States, and he pointed out their mistake within five minutes. Years later his widow visited Holland and was received by Dutch officials at a pumping station turned out in plush red carpeting.
Wood’s other contributions to the city of New Orleans were numerous, if not as famous as his twelve—and fourteen-foot pumps. He invented one of the first automatic sewage-moving pumps in the country and a machine for testing hydraulic meters. He developed a money-saving technique for “half-soling” the undersides of worn sewer pipes. In all, Wood had thirtyeight patents, of which six or eight were “quite successful,” in his words.
Despite his accomplishments, Wood took care to stay well away from the public eye. He asked National Geographic not to use his name in an article on the New Orleans drainage system. He reportedly would buy two seats on a train so that no one would sit next to him. His life consisted of hard work for the water board and weekend sailing trips on his sloop Nydia , moored in Biloxi, Mississippi, by his beach house.
The Nydia was the joy of Wood’s existence. Once, moored peacefully in a hidden cove in Florida, Wood woke up to the sound of explosions. Geysers of water were shooting up all around him; he had stumbled into a bombing range. He quickly hoisted his sails and fled the area. Another time the boat was stolen by escaping convicts. After it was recovered, Wood built a lighthouse on his property, with its beam pointing at the boat. When a hurricane blew the lighthouse over, he rigged a pulley system and righted it himself.
Wood often told his friends that he hoped he would die on the Nydia , and coincidentally, on May 10, 1956, he got his wish while on an afternoon sail. A friend of his, Capt. Louis Gorenflo, later described to a reporter the fulfillment of Wood’s wish: “There was a spanking Southeaster and just after I had cleared the harbor I saw the Nydia . … As Mr. Wood sailed across my port bow, he gave me that customary wave. Moments later … I saw him move to a kneeling position, pause for a while with his chin resting on the tiller, then slump gradually to the deck.” Wood so treasured his boat that in his will he left money to install the Nydia in a small glass building on the Tulane campus.