Although VMA members might think the valve industry began with formation of the Valve Manufacturers Association on Sept. 1, 1938, in reality, the industry in this nation was around for 100 years before that date, its roots firmly attached to the American industrial landscape.
The first valve patent granted in the United States went to James Robinson in 1840. Although his gate valve, or “stop cock,” as it was called at the time, looked like it would be right at home on Jules Verne’s fictitious Nautilus submarine, it was nonetheless a humble beginning to a proud industry with a long history.
What’s more, while most basic valve designs were conceived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the first valves as we know them can be traced back over 2,000 years. Valve engineers feel like they are breaking new ground when they boot up AutoCAD and draw up a new valve design. But that design often was unveiled decades or even centuries before. Take the plug valve, for example. During the early 1900s, numerous patents came out for plug valves, most notably designs by Sven Johan Nordstrom. But examples of bronze plug valves have been unearthed in many early Roman Empire archaeological sites. These plug valves were of a bronze alloy that amazingly is nearly identical to the ASTM B67 bronze chemistry still in use today.
An interesting side about early Roman valves and piping is that, unlike today—where the builder or manufacturer of a valve has his name cast upon it-back then, the property owner’s name was cast in raised bronze letters on the valves and piping.
Like technology in general, valve engineering and design slept through the dark ages. Glimmers of valve technological advancement were brought forth by that famous artist and inventor, Leonardo DaVinci.
But it wasn’t until the invention of steam power that valve designs began to really move forward—19th century valve manufacturing ran a parallel track with the steam-powered industrial revolution, and both were in high gear by the end of the century. Valve design during the 1850 to 1875 period was dominated by globe-type valves. The most important fluid control need of the period was controlling and regulating steam flow, and the globe valve was the best design for the job. The period from 1850 to 1900 also saw the birth of many major iconic companies in the valve industry. Powell, Crane, Lunkenheimer, Walworth and Jenkins started their empires during this time and all had patents for globe valve designs. Another industry pioneer, Chapman, is credited with the first design for a wedge-type gate valve during this period.
Valve materials in the 19th century were strictly in the realm of bronze and cast iron. Although viewed today as only capable of handling pedestrian pressures and temperatures, these materials were state-of-the-art in 1890. However, the service conditions of the era were not nearly as demanding. A high-pressure boiler of the late 1880s, for example, would be running at an operating pressure of only about 200 psi. Because of this, the bronze and iron materials worked well, except when the components were exposed to dangerous overpressures.
It didn’t take industry long to push the boundaries of the standard valve materials of the day. It soon was no longer feasible to design and manufacture cast iron valves to meet higher pressures and temperatures produced by the newest steam boilers.
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