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The History of Pressure Washing

Water - The Ancient Workhorse

Pressure washing had its humble beginnings among bootleggers and moonshiners of the Prohibition Era (1919-1933). A scheme to evade the law led to an accidental discovery that sparked the modern Pressure Washing Industry.

Throughout human history, water has been used not only to keep humans, animals, and plants alive, but also to help humans perform tasks. From devices that lift water to the hanging gardens of Babylon, to Archimedes (287-211B.C.) water screw, to mining, cleaning, and transportation, water has the potential to usurp dog’s status as “man’s best friend” or at least claim the title of “man’s most necessary friend”. If you have wondered like me the journey to the pressure washing we know today, here is a bird’s eye view of the various technologies, machines, and circumstances that led to the multi-billion dollar pressure washing industry today.

Pascal's Principle

It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the primary Scientific Principle used in pressure washing machines would be put forth. Simply put, since liquid is not compressible, force can be applied to liquid which results in work that one wouldn’t think could be done with liquid. Essentially modern hydraulic theory in scientific vernacular. But Pascal was not the first to discover that water could do incredible things.


Over 2,000 years ago, the Romans were destroying whole mountains with water – a technique called “Hushing” used until the 19th century in Britain and the 20th century in Africa. Water would be stored in reservoirs high up on the mountain and tunnels dug down into the mountain. At the opportune time, the water would be released and would tear through the tunnels with such pressure that whole mountainsides would be destroyed.

Pliny the Elder, who was a procurator in 74 AD, described such a technique of hydraulic mining that could have been his eyewitness of Las Médulas:

“What happens is far beyond the work of giants. The mountains are bored with corridors and galleries made by lamplight with a duration that is used to measure the shifts. For months, the miners cannot see the sunlight and many of them die inside the tunnels. This type of mine has been given the name of ruina montium. The cracks made in the entrails of the stone are so dangerous that it would be easier to find purpurine or pearls at the bottom of the sea than make scars in the rock. How dangerous we have made the Earth!” (Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, XXXIII, 70.)

Las Médulas Gold Mines

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Las Médulas stands as a symbol of ingenuity and the ability of ancients to use water to move mountains in the search for gold.

Another place where a similar method was used was the Dolaucothi Gold Mines in Wales.

Hydraulic Mining

In the 19th century, mountains were moved with a newer method called Hydraulic Mining during California’s Gold Rush of the 1840s/50s.

“Dams were built high in the mountains. The water traveled from the reservoirs through a wooden canal called a flume that was up to 45 miles (72 km) long. The water ran swiftly to the canvas hoses and nozzles called monitors waiting in the old riverbeds. The miners would aim the monitors at the hillsides to wash the gravel into huge sluices. Over time the monitors became bigger and more powerful. Their force was so great they could toss a fifty-pound rock like a cannonball or even kill a person.”

The environmental results were catastrophic. A typical description was penned in 1868 by Samuel Bowles, a visitor to the California gold country:

"Tornado, flood, earthquake and volcano combined could hardly make greater havoc, spread wider ruin and wreck, than are to be seen everywhere in the track of the larger gold-washing operations. None of the interior streams of California, though naturally pure as crystal, escape the change to a thick yellow mud from this cause, early in their progress from the hills. The Sacramento River is worse than the Missouri. Many of the streams are turned out of their original channels, either directly for mining purposes, or in consequence of the great masses of soil and gravel that come down from the gold-washing above. Thousands of acres of fine land along their banks are ruined forever by the deposits of this character. A farmer may have his whole estate turned into a barren waste by a flood of sand and gravel from some hydraulic mining up stream; more, if a fine orchard or garden stands in the way of the working of a rich gulch or bank, orchard or garden must go. Then the torn-out, dug- out, washed to pieces and then washed over side-hills, masses that have been or are being subjected to the hydraulics of the miners, are the very devil's chaos indeed. The country is full of them among the mining districts of the Sierra Nevada, and they are truly a terrible blot upon the face of Nature."

Malakoff Monitor

The polution of dirt, mud, and runoff that such erosion caused to California’s waterways resulted in a lawsuit against the mining company which ended such mining practics in California and later resulted in the Federal Rivers and Harbors act.

History of the Steam Engine

Two Millennia ago, it was discovered that steam could move a little toy called an Aeolipile. Unfortunately, this was all the aeolipile was to become: a fascinating trinket. It would take 16 centuries before someone would try to harness the power of steam.

Aeolipile at rest

Aeolipile when heat is applied

Dennis Papin (1647-1713)

Born in 1647, he was one of the Huguenots expelled from France many of whom were scattered throughout Europe and America whose offspring include the likes of Paul Revere and Alexander Hamilton. Having left France for his ancestral Netherlands, he took up work on an idea that had been presented to him while in France: moving a piston in a cylinder with gunpowder. He quickly realized this would not work as the piston was not recompressible. With a stroke of genius, or simply the spunk to try something new, he began to wonder if steam could be used to power such a device. In 1690, he published his design seen under his left hand in the statue that stands at the Louvre today.

Papin's sketch of his first steam engine.

Papin later proposed a bigger, better-fitting engine, but no one quite knew how to make such parts at that time. His final steam engine design is shown below and borrows from previous attempts. Notice the pressure relief valves - items missing from previous designs.

Thomas Savory (1650-1715)

In 1698, Thomas Savory from Devonshire in Southwest Britain submitted a patent for a:

New Invention for Raiseing of Water and occasioning Motion to all Sorts of Mill Work by the Impellent Force of Fire which will be of great use and Advantage for Drayning Mines, serveing Towns with Water, and for the Working of all Sorts of Mills where they have not the benefitt of Water nor constant Windes.

While Savory's pump was effective at raising water from mines, it couldn't be harnessed for any other kind of work. But, development was happening, efficiency was improving, and technology was about to take a giant leap forward.

Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729)

In 1707, a blacksmith from Devonshire, a contemporary of Savory who likely collaborated with him on steam engine development, jumpstarted the steam-powered revolution in Great Britain’s countryside. His name was Thomas Newcomen. He, in collaboration with his partner John Calley, had their monstrous working steam engine up and running in 1712, only 17 years before Newcomen’s death at the age of 65.

Later 18th-century Newcomen-type piston, roughly three feet in diameter with a wide circumferential slot to wind rope as a packing seal. (London Science Museum, photo by JHL).

Newcomen's atmospheric engine, as it was shown by Lardner.

James Watt, whose brilliance inspired use of the term "Watt" to measure power.

James Watt (1736-1819)

And here, James Watt, the Scottish Father of the Steam Engine enters the picture. Having grown up tinkering with his shipwright father’s nautical tools, in 1755 he became a scientific instrument apprentice and later a scientific instrument maker in his own right. One Sunday in 1765, Watt had a Eureka moment while walking in a park, a spark of genius that was to spark the Industrial Revolution. He thought he could use a separate chamber to condense steam without needing to cool the rest of the engine. As there were no factories with readily available parts, he set out to make his own using the skills, techniques, and knowledge he had acquired from tinkering in his father's workshop up through his instrument-making days.

In this picture, what is likely the first condenser can be seen laying below the middle bust in James Watt’s workshop.

With this small device, the Industrial Revolution took off as many inventors set out to improve on Watt's design seen below.

James Watt’s separate condenser. 

The Combustion Engine

The steam engine underwent development and improvement for about a century, and at the end of the 18th century, inventors began to turn from the mild power of steam to something

that offered more bang for the buck: combustion.

The 1790s saw several attempts at the internal combustion engine and the number of attempts and models only increased from there as word spread and everyone and their brother tried their hand at improving the design. For more information on the various attempts and inventors, see source.

After a century of development, the pressure washer wouldn’t be invented until a year after a liquid-propelled rocket was built in 1926.

Model of the first liquid propelled rocket built 1 year before the first pressure washer.

Despite all the pompous history of inventors, scientists, and the industrial revolution, to understand the precise origin of pressure washing, we must turn to a humbler setting: bootlegging.

History of Prohibition

The 18th Amendment (1919)

Throughout the 19th century, the movement to make alcohol illegal was growing. A couple of decades into the 20th century, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution which strictly prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors..." and it was ratified by the states on January 16, 1919.

The 18th Ammendment to the Constitution.

The Volstead Act (1919)

On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act which provided for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment by making it illegal to “manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish, or possess” such alcoholic beverages. This act provided the "teeth" for law enforcement to enforce the 18th Amendment.

Shoes that inspired the term "bootleggers".

During this increased enforcement of the prohibition era, individuals sought discreet ways to produce alcoholic drinks and avoid detection. One way to hide your tracks to-and-from your illegal still in the woods was to fasten pieces of wood in the shape of cow hooves to your boots. That way, when you walked through the mud to and from the still, you left no tracks. This is where the term “bootleggers” comes from.

There was not "one way" to make a still during Prohibition, they came in all shapes in sizes. What was important was that no one found out. Here are some of the many stills used and discovered at that time:

While big stills could produce more, they were harder to conceal. And it is here we introduce 'ole Frank, the inventor of the first pressure washer. But he didn’t set out to build a pressure washer at first. No. Instead, he set out to make a portable still for a friend. There on his garage floor, Frank built something like the machine seen below.

It was a still that was small, portable, and could be moved or hidden easily. But after running the machine, Frank noticed something interesting: the greasy and oily garage had a strange clean spot under his still. As it turns out, the steam vent was pointed down to the floor and seemed to be able to dispel the muck with relative ease. His wheels began to turn as he thought of the many applications for such a cleaning machine, and his initiative helped spark what is today a multi-billion dollar cleaning industry.

21st Ammendment (1933)

In March of 1933, U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which permitted the sale of low-alcohol beer and wine. Prohibition officially ended on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment. Prohibition was over and still could legally run again. But seven years earlier, Frank Ofeldt's attempt to circumvent the law led to a discovery that would alter the rest of his life.

The American Pressure-Washing Frontier

Frank W. Ofeldt II

As a grandson of F. W. Ofeldt I, inventor of the first Motorboat (Naphtha-Launch), Frank W. Ofeldt II came from a stock of steam inventors. Frank built on the knowledge that had been passed down from his grandfather. According to the Moon Township Historical Society,

"This first motor-boat, or “Naphtha-Launch” as it was then called, was driven by a gasoline vapor generator similar in construction to the generator used in Hypressure Jenny for generating a cleaning spray.”

Once Frank (the 2nd) realized what his device could do and the possibilities of mass producing such a device, the search began for a manufacturer that could produce a pump casting. His search ultimately led him to the Homestead Valve Company where he made the

acquaintance of Frederick E. Schuchman Sr. who took a special interest in Frank's project. Together, they began work on what was then called the Hypressure Vapor Spray Generator, later to be called the High Pressure Jenny from which the classic company name "Jenny" was derived. The Jenny Companym continued development of the High Pressure Jenny and is credited with building the first positive displacement triplex pump in 1934, a pivotal milestone in the annals of pressure washing history.

The European Pressure Washing Front

Alfred Kärcher (1901–59)

DS350 - The first consumer pressure-washer

In 1935 the 34 year-old German inventor Alfred Kärcher founded a company to develop his pioneering cleaning products. Little did he know, what started as a small business that he considered selling, would one day become the largest cleaning company in the world: Kärcher. With an original focus on submersible heating elements, Karcher's focus turned towards equipment for professional and private uses and in 1950 created the first modern pressure washer that could be bought in stores, the DS350. Today, they continue to innovate and hold many patents for high-pressure cleaners, floor care equipment, parts cleaning systems, wash water treatment, military decontamination equipment and window vacuum cleaners to name a few.

Modern Producers of Pressure-Washing Equipment

From humble beginnings to an international industry, below are some of the key manufacturers of pressure washing equipment in today's market:

Modern High-Pressure Applications

With advances in research in technology, pressurized water is used in various industries and diverse applications that keep us safe, and fed, and our lives easier. Here are a few:







Industrial CNC Fabrication


Historic Preservation

... and more!!!

With a long and surprising history, pressure washing has become a part of each of our lives in one way or another. From the businesses we frequent to our homes and vehicles that need to be cleaned, we get the opportunity to join the Romans, Pascal, Watt, Frank, and others who have harnessed the power of water. While it might be tempting to take away from this article the maxim, "break the law, spark an industry", it is probably more fitting to take away, "utilize what you have, and look for ways to improve it."

And, of course, there is always the takeaway, "Blue Solutions is YOUR Solution!"


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