A History of Valves

From a Humble Beginning, an Industry Rises

vmwnt12_anniv_1890_iron_valveThis 36-inch double spindle water gate valve had bevel gearing and an indicator.

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.

vmwnt12_anniv_First-valve-patentThe very first patent for a valve in the U.S. was filed by James Robertson in 1840.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.

vmwnt12_anniv_Roman-valveValves go back as far as the Roman Empire.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 uvmwnt12_anniv_Chapman-1885A 1885 Scientific American article talks about the wonders of valves used in steam works.ntil 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.

High capacity steel production began in the U.S. in the 1860s with the inception of the Bessemer process. This process made the production of large batches of steel economical. However, steel didn’t reach the valve industry for many years. For nearly 40 years after those first batches, the primary use of the steel was producing rails for the railroad transportation empire spreading across the continent. By the end of the century, however, new processes for steel-making had been developed that greatly increased the productivity of steel foundry work. These processes, such as the electric arc furnace, opened the door for steel usage in the valve and fitting industry—just in time to meet the needs of the newer high-pressure, high-temperature steam generation.

Valves and steel have been a natural and a long-lived marriage that exists to this day. The explosion of the steel valve industry, however, began during the first decade of the 20th century. No longer would the brittleness and 23,000 psi tensile strength of 19th century cast iron limit valve construction. Instead, the greater strength (70,000 psi tensile) and ductile qualities of cast steel opened new doors for valve design.


While the primary industry focus was on gate, globe and check valves in the early days, control and pressure relief valves also were important. In fact, the first valve of importance to the steam power industry was the safety valve. Such valves were designed to open when dangerous pressures were achieved in the steam boilers. On the initial designs, an adjustable, weighted lever-arm was attached to the closure member (disc) of the valve. The weight was positioned on the lever-arm to match the force exerted on the closure member inside the pressure boundary. As the pressure rose, the weighted disc moved upward and relieved pressure. Later designs would incorporate an adjustable spring to balance the pressure.

vmwnt12_anniv_crane-extra-heavy-valve-1902An early steel valve advertises “steam up to 250 pounds.”As the end of the 19th century approached, much ignorance existed about the dangerous side of steam power. Tragic boiler explosions were killing and maiming hundreds of persons each year. The fledgling American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) focused on this problem, and by 1912 had a solution in place in the creation of the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code. “The code,” as it is referred to today, helped solidify safety relief valve design and performance.

Control valves were important in 19th century piping systems as well. These valves were initially called governors, pressure-reducing valves, back pressure valves or automatic relief valves. The control valve industry, like other valve industry segments, received its initial impetus from the control and regulation of steam power.

By 1900, the valve industry was very healthy and gaining maturity rapidly; however, virtually every manufacturer was doing things its own way and to its own standards and specifications. This situation created a dilemma for the equipment owner; brand X wouldn't mate up with either brand Y or brand Z. Pressure standards were virtually non-existent as well. It was clear that, if the valve industry was to take the next step in its growth cycle, standardization was needed. Stay tuned to the next column in this series for the story of U.S. valve standardization.

GREG JOHNSON is president of United Valve (www.unitedvalve.com), Houston, and is a contributing editor to Valve Magazine. He serves as chairman of VMA's Education & Training ­Committee, is a member of the VMA ­Communications Committee and is on the board of the ­Manufacturers Standardization Society. In 2010, Johnson was the recipient of VMA’s top honor, the “Man of the Year” award. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..