Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography

Technology Backus Water Motor

Backus Water Motors

From Backus Water Motor Co. Catalog [1884]

The potential to use piped water supplies as a source of power was recognized early in the 19th Century and in the 1850s were introduced for a variety of distributed power requirements.  As public water systems became more robust after the Civil War, several inventors produced a variety of water motors for the booming market, making it possible to use mechanical power without the cost and maintenance required to own and operate a steam or gas engine.  Perhaps the most popular of these was the Backus Water Motor, which had been patented by Isaac Hyde of Oakland, California in 1872 and assigned to Oscar J. Backus, who lived in San Francisco.  Backus patented improvements over the next three years, and became production in Newark, New Jersey with his brother Rodman Backus, who was an inventor and contractor, under the name Backus & Brother.  Rodman died in 1878, and in 1881 the Backus Water Motor Company was incorporated in Newark to produce the machines.  This company, and the Backus Manufacturing Company, produced water and gas engines well into the 20th Century.

Backus Water Motors could produce from ⅛ to 10 horsepower, depending on the available water pressure.

Rodman Backus and William H. Knauss, a Newark Real Estate broker, also made a proposal to build a water system for Kansas City, Missouri in 1873, which was turned down by local voters.

Patents for Oscar J. and Rodman Backus
Patent Number
Reissue Number Reissue Date

U.S. Patent 120,229 Oct. 24, 1871 Rodman Backus Albany NY Improvement in base-burning stoves

U.S. Patent 131,616, Sep. 24, 1872 Isaac Hyde, Oakland, California, assignor to Oscar J. Backus San Francisco CA Improvement in combined water-wheels and sewing-machines RE 5,590 Oct. 7, 1873

U.S. Patent 146,120 Jan. 6, 1874 Oscar J. Backus San Francisco CA Improvement in Water Motors for Sewing-Machines

U.S. Patent 171,256 Dec. 21, 1875 Oscar J. Backus Newark NJ Improvement in Centrifugal Water-Wheels

1851 "Tin, Copper & Sheet-Iron Manufactory," Weekly Oregon Statesman, March 28, 1851, Page 3.
Oscar J. Backus, Oregon City, March 24, 1851

1871 Newark, New Jersey City Directory
Page 2:  R. Backus & Co., Hardware, Cutlery and Mechanics Tools

1872 Patent No. 131,616, September 24, 1872, Isaac Hyde, Oakland, California, assignor to Oscar J. Backus, San Francisco, California

1873 Reissued Letters patent No. 5,590, October 7, 1873

1874 Newark, New Jersey City Directory
Page 91:  Rodman Backus; h 93 Pennsylvania av
Backus & Underhill (Rodman Backus & Frederick S. Underhill), Dock & RR contractors, 183 Market
Page 430:  William H. Knauss, Real Estate Broker; 741 Broad, h 19 Sherman av

1874 Patent No. 146,120 January 6, 1874, to Oscar J. Backus of San Francisco, California.

1875 Newark, New Jersey City Directory
Page 100:  Oscar J. Rodman; h 95 Wright
Rodman Backus; h 93 Pennsylvania av
Backus & Brother (Rodman and Oscar J.) water motor mfrs

1875 "Improved Water Motor," Scientific American 32(8):115 (February 20, 1875).  Backus improved water motor.

1875 Patent No. 171,256, December 21, 1875, to Oscar J. Backus of Newark, New Jersey.

1878 Rodman Backus (1826-1878) grave, son of Delucena "Delano" Backus (1788-1859) & Eliza Elizabeth (nee Mulford) Backus (1792-1852)

1879 Illustrated Catalogue: No. 5, 1879, Backus Water Motor Company (Newark, N.J.)

1881 Backus Water Motor Company incorporated, May 16, 1881, capital stock $50,000

1883 Backus Water Motor Co., v Tuerk and others, 17 Fed. 350, July 10, 1883, Circuit Court, Northern District of Illinois

[1884] Backus Water Motor Co. Catalog

1886 Backus Manufacturing Company incorporated, March 15, 1886, capital stock $5,000

1886 Murray's patent rotating and ventilating fans, by Backus Water Motor Co.

1887 Quarter-century's Progress of New Jersey's Leading Manufacturing Center, Newark: Embracing ... Review of the Prominent Manufacturing Cities of Northern New Jersey
Page 77:  The Backus Water Motor Company, Manufacturers of the Backus Water Motor Ventilating and Rotating Fans and Hydraulic Machinery, Office and Works, Hamilton Street.—Special attention is directed to the widely known and reliable Backus Water Motor Company, manufacturer of the famous Backus Water Motor. This company was incorporated in 1881 with large capital, and since its organization has built up a liberal and permanent patronage in all sections of the civilized world. The following gentlemen are the officers, viz.: R. S. L. Cissel, president; Robert B. Cissel, secretary and manager; Alfred N. Lewis, treasurer. The company has two thousand agents scattered all over the globe. The Backus Water Motor is now in general use in nearly all the cities and towns, having water-works in the United States and Europe. During the last ten years fifteen thousand have been put to work, half this number being used on family sewing-machines. This motor is invaluable for driving sewing-machines, coffee and drug mills, church organs, lathes, printing presses, etc. This motor is constructed on the principle of velocity, and it has a power from one to ten horses, and is adapted to all purposes. They cannot freeze up, as no water remains in them, and they always run with a steadv, even motion. The general points of excellence may be briefly summarized as follows: First, nominal cost, convenience, and great durabiltv. Second, its noiseless running qualities. Third, its availability; when shut off there is no waste, as occurs in ordinary steam boilers. Fourth, its safety and freedom from derangement. The standing of the Backus Water Motor Company in mercantile circles is too well known to require any comments at our hands.

1895 The Backus patent rotating and exhaust ventilating fans by Backus Water Motor Co.

1896 "Water Motors and Their Power," by G. D. Hiscox, Scientific American Supplement 41(1049):16766-16767 (February 8,1896)

1904 The Backus Water Motor

1905 The Backus Piston Water Engine

1905 Oscar Jerome Backus, Born January 9, 1830 in Steuben County, New York, died March 20, 1905 at Oakland, California

1905 San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 1905, Page 15.
Obituary of Oscar Jerome Backus, died March 20, 1905.

1912 Seeler Elevator Company v. Backus Water Motor Company, Appellant, 51 Pa. Super. Ct. 29, July 18, 1912

© 2020 Morris A. Pierce