• Post last modified:January 21, 2020

Early-stage problems

One of the first engineering problems humankind faced as cities were developed was the supply of water for domestic use and irrigation of crops. Our urban lifestyles can be retained only with abundant water, and it is clear from archeology that every successful civilization of prehistory invested in the construction and maintenance of water systems. The Roman aqueducts, some of which are still in use, are the best-known examples.

However, perhaps the most impressive engineering from a technical viewpoint was done at the Hellenistic city of Pergamon in present-day Turkey. There, from 283 to 133 BC, they built a series of pressurized lead and clay pipelines, up to 45 km long that operated at pressures exceeding 1.7 MPa (180 m of head). Unfortunately, the names of almost all these early builders are lost to history. The earliest recognized contribution to fluid mechanics theory was made by the Greek mathematician Archimedes (285–212 BC). He formulated and applied the buoyancy principle in history’s first nondestructive test to determine the gold content of the crown of King Hiero I. The Romans built great aqueducts and educated many conquered people on the benefits of clean water, but overall had a poor understanding of fluids theory. (Perhaps they shouldn’t have killed Archimedes when they sacked Syracuse.)

Application during the middle age

During the Middle Ages, the application of fluid machinery slowly but steadily expanded. Elegant piston pumps were developed for dewatering mines, and the watermill and windmill were perfected to grind grain, forge metal, and for other tasks. For the first time in recorded human history, significant work was being done without the power of a muscle supplied by a person or animal, and these inventions are generally credited with enabling the later industrial revolution. Again the creators of most of the progress are unknown, but the devices themselves were well documented by several technical writers such as Georgius Agricola.

The Renaissance brought continued development of fluid systems and machines, but more importantly, the scientific method was perfected and adopted throughout Europe. Simon Stevin (1548–1617), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Edme Mariotte (1620–1684), and Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647) were among the first to apply the method to fluids as they investigated hydrostatic pressure distributions and vacuums. That work was integrated and refined by the brilliant mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). The Italian monk, Benedetto Castelli (1577–1644) was the first person to publish a statement of the continuity principle for fluids. Besides formulating his equations of motion for solids, Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) applied his laws to fluids and explored fluid inertia and resistance, free jets,
and viscosity. That effort was built upon by the Swiss Daniel Bernoulli
(1700–1782) and his associate Leonard Euler (1707–1783). Together, their work defined the energy and momentum equations. Bernoulli’s 1738 classic treatise Hydrodynamica may be considered the first fluid mechanics text. Finally, Jean d’Alembert (1717–1789) developed the idea of velocity and acceleration components, differential expression of continuity, and his “paradox” of zero resistance to steady uniform motion.

The development of fluid mechanics theory up through the end of the
the eighteenth century had little impact on engineering since fluid properties and parameters were poorly quantified, and most theories were abstractions that could not be quantified for design purposes. That was to change with the development of the French school of engineering led by Riche de Prony (1755–1839). Prony (still known for his brake to measure power) and his associates in Paris at the Ecole Polytechnic and the Ecole Ponts et Chaussees were the first to integrate calculus and scientific theory into the engineering curriculum, which became the model for the rest of the world. (So now you know whom to blame for your painful freshman year.) Antonie Chezy (1718–1798), Louis Navier (1785–1836), Gaspard Coriolis (1792–1843), Henry Darcy (1803–1858), and many other contributors to fluid engineering and theory were students and/or instructors at the schools.

By the mid-nineteenth century, fundamental advances were coming on several fronts. The physician Jean Poiseuille (1799–1869) had accurately measured flow in capillary tubes for multiple fluids, while in Germany Gotthilf Hagen (1797–1884) had differentiated between laminar and turbulent flow in pipes. In England, Lord Osborn Reynolds (1842–1912) continued that work and developed the dimensionless number that bears his name. Similarly, in parallel to the early work of Navier, George Stokes (1819–1903) completed the general equations of fluid motion with the friction that take their names. William Froude (1810 -1879) almost single-handedly developed the procedures and proved the value of physical model testing. American expertise had become equal to the Europeans as demonstrated by James Francis’s (1815–1892) and Lester Pelton’s (1829–1908) pioneering work in turbines and Clemens Herschel’s (1842–1930) invention of the Venturimeter.

The late nineteenth century was notable for the expansion of the fluid theory by Irish and English scientists and engineers, including in addition to Reynolds and Stokes, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824–1907), William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh (1842–1919), and Sir Horace Lamb (1849–1934). These individuals investigated a large number of problems including dimensional analysis, irrotational flow, vortex motion, cavitation, and waves. In a broader sense, their work also explored the links between fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and heat transfer.


The dawn of the twentieth century brought two monumental developments. First in 1903, the self-taught Wright brothers (Wilbur, 1867–1912; Orville, 1871–1948) through application of theory and determined experimentation perfected the airplane. Their primitive invention was complete and contained all the major aspects of modern craft. The Navier–Stokes equations were of little use up to this time because they were too difficult to solve. In a pioneering paper in 1904, the German Ludwig Prandtl (1875–1953) showed that fluid flows can be divided into a layer near the walls, the boundary layer, where the friction effects are significant and an outer layer where such effects are negligible and the simplified Euler and Bernoulli equations are applicable. His students, Theodore von Kármán (1881–1963), Paul Blasius (1883–1970), Johann Nikuradse (1894–1979), and others built on that theory in both hydraulic and aerodynamic applications. (During World War II, both sides benefited from the theory as Prandtl remained in Germany while his best student, the Hungarian born Theodore von Kármán, worked in America.)


The mid-twentieth century could be considered a golden age of fluid mechanics applications. Existing theories were adequate for the tasks at hand, and fluid properties and parameters were well defined. These supported a huge expansion of the aeronautical, chemical, industrial, and water resources sectors; each of which pushed fluid mechanics in new directions.
Fluid mechanics research and work in the late twentieth century were dominated by the development of the digital computer in America. The ability to solve large complex problems, such as global climate modeling or to optimize the design of a turbine blade, has provided a benefit to our society that the eighteenth-century developers of fluid mechanics could never have imagined. The principles presented in the following pages have been applied to flows ranging from a moment at the microscopic scale to 50 years of simulation for an entire river basin. It is truly mind-boggling. Where will fluid mechanics go in the twenty-first century? Frankly, even a limited extrapolation beyond the present would be sheer folly. However, if history tells us anything, it is that engineers will be applying what they know to benefit society, researching what they don’t know, and having a great time in the process.

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