Key’s Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, Worthington’s Water Meter

Key’s Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, Worthington’s Water Meter

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – July 13, 2017 – Comment

Did you know July 24th marks an important anniversary for the water industry?

On that date in 1855, a patent was issued to Henry R. Worthington for his “water metre.” At the time, it was billed as “a new and useful meter for measuring the quantity of flowing liquids,” and it is considered the first successful water meter made in America. If you’re sarcastically musing right now, “wow, how exciting!”—that’s a little understandable. After all, water meters have become as innocuous as clothes dryers, electric fuse boxes, and the Internet. But as commonplace as it may be now, the water meter is as indispensable as any of those items.

It’s hard to imagine a society in the mid-1800s that had yet to benefit from motorized vehicles, telephones or electricity in the home, to possess a great concern for measuring water use, let alone water conservation. It probably comes as little surprise that the first water meter patent came at a time that few American households were experiencing the joys of indoor plumbing. As industrialization and urbanization took off in the U.S. so did the need for the reliable delivery of clean water, coinciding with the development of public waterworks facilities, and in turn the demand for Mr. Worthington’s water meter.

Of course, more than just a “cash register” for measuring water consumption, the water meter can detect water leaks and help manage water loss.  A meter flowing backwards can alter operators to a potential contamination to a water system.  When water is metered, communities use about 20% less water than when households are unmetered – thus Mr. Worthington’s invention helps promote water conservation and helps to lower costs. 

Long gone are the days when someone had to walk down the street to read your meter. Most of today’s meters are read automatically, either using a car or van that just drives down the street and wirelessly picks up the readings, or like E.T., today’s meters can phone (or radio) home to report their status.  But like everything else meters are now (or soon will be) connected to the web through wide area internets so water usage can be continuously monitored.  This “backbone” of data transmission opens the door for collecting a wide range of other information on water pressure, water quality, and pipeline integrity.  At the center of this digital revolution in “smart” water is Henry R. Worthington and his patent #13,320.

Housed within the National Museum of American History—along with other national treasures tracing all the greatest and most significant influences shaping American society and prosperity (including Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz as well as the original crash test dummies) is Worthington’s first patented water meter. And, this meter is not alone! His is one of 108 water meters in the museum’s exhibit, which follows the evolution of the water meter and celebrates the progress water metering has made possible in America.

Make more room Smithsonian!  We’ve just started and there is more innovation in the water meter to come!