The Waterloo Pump was invented in 1978 by University of Waterloo professors Alan Plumtree and Alfred Rudin at the request of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IRDC). The goal was to invent an inexpensive pump that could be manufactured in developing countries with local materials that could be easily repaired by villagers using readily available materials.

“Water pumps at that time were manufactured in industrialized countries and exported to developing nations,” said Plumtree. “The imported pumps were complex machinery, although very lovely and worked fine when new, when they broke down, they were done.”

And break down they did. The traditional cast-iron pumps suffered from rapid wear; the imported hand pumps rarely lasted more than a year. Replacement parts were expensive and difficult to obtain, while repairs required a technical expertise rarely found in villages.  As a further frustration, if a pump remained broken for more than a day, it was normal practice to salvage the remaining parts for other uses, leaving much of the village without easy access to water.

This is where Waterloo’s willingness to take on difficult problems helped to put the young university on the world map. Plumtree, a mechanical engineering faculty member, and Rudin, a chemistry faculty member, were then gaining a reputation for innovation and their work caught the attention of Tim Journey, a water pump expert at the IRDC.  In 1977, Journey asked the men to come up with a new hand pump design. Researchers in five other countries were already deep into the pump project when Plumtree and Rudin enthusiastically accepted the engineering challenge.

The rise of Waterloo Engineering

The young men were used to uphill battles as the University of Waterloo was still the new kid on the block in Canadian education and had a reputation for doing things differently.  In 1957, when the university was founded by a group of local businessmen, they had taken the radical step of transforming engineering education – instead of the traditional method of pure academic lectures in classrooms, they deemed real-world experience was essential to a student’s understanding of the profession.  With prescient clarity they instituted co-operative  education where students would spend alternate school terms – up to two years’ worth –  working in various engineering capacities in a multitude of industries. Co-op would instantly set the university apart, while creating a new breed of engineers who were uniquely prepared to tackle the technological problems facing the rapidly growing nation.

It didn’t hurt that the young university had few rules, bureaucracy was in short supply and decisions were often made on the fly. It wasn’t until 1997 that the university would even have a formal intellectual property policy, and then it would be a unique inventor-owned IP policy designed to continue the fast-moving entrepreneurial culture already embedded on campus.

A scrappy upstart university

It was this exceptional model of education and intellectual openness that attracted Plumtree to Waterloo. In 1965, Plumtree, a  29-year-old British-born and educated junior professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, began to hear favourable things about the scrappy, upstart engineering faculty at the University of Waterloo.

“Waterloo Engineering was just beginning to flex its muscles, and I really liked the co-op and the interrelationships between university and industry, as I had worked in industry prior to getting my PhD,” recalls Plumtree. “I knew by joining the Faculty I could make a difference with Waterloo Engineering.”

Plumtree would come to exemplify the type of engineer attracted to the University of Waterloo – young, smart and chomping at the bit to give students the best engineering education possible, while advancing the frontiers of knowledge.

“From the beginning, I was always impressed with the immense enthusiasm and efficiency of the students,” recalls Plumtree, who retired in 2004 and was named Professor Emeritus a year later. That enthusiasm would be contagious, and within a few decades, Waterloo Engineering was easily holding its own against the engineering heavy weights such as Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S.

So how did the upstart Waterloo Engineering researchers invent a water pump in just six short months that would become the preferred pump for developing nations?  “By keeping it simple,” said Plumtree.

Inspired by the local Mennonite philosophy of simplicity and resourcefulness, Plumtree and Rudin came up with an elegant piston-based design that would prove to be a reliable workhorse in months of testing around the world.

“If the pump [piston ring] broke down, the village people were prepared to take their shoe off, cut off some leather and use that to get the Waterloo Pump to work. A bit of leather, a bit of rope, and that worked very well,” said Plumtree.

The widely successful Waterloo Pump would prove to have a lifespan of up to eight years of hard service and would be locally manufactured in the hundreds of thousands.

Leading in engineering in Canada

Waterloo Engineering is now the premier engineering school in Canada, with a top-50 ranking worldwide. Its alumni and researchers are renowned for significant contributions to the advancement of technology. Yet, Waterloo Engineering never forgets its true goal.  As the humble, but brilliant Waterloo Pump shows, the powers of engineering are best served when used to improve the human condition.

Alan Plumtree

Alan Plumtree, now a Waterloo Engineering Distinguished Professor Emeritus invented the Waterloo Pump in 1978 along with then-Waterloo Chemical  Professor Alfred Rudin.