La Machine de Marly

Painting of the original machine de Marly

Pierre-Denis Martin, 1723

The "machine" of Marly was a civil engineering marvel located at the bottom of the hill of Louveciennes, on the banks of the Seine about 12 kms from Paris. Louis XIV had it constructed to pump water from the river to his chateaux of Versailles and Marly. The construction lasted 7 years and was inaugurated in the presence of the King in June 1684. It was considered a wonder of the world at the time, and may have been the largest system of integrated machinery ever assembled to that date.

Fourteen paddlewheels, each about 38 feet in diameter, were turned by the Seine to power more than 250 pumps, forcing river water up a series of pipes to the Louveciennes aqueduct, a 500 foot vertical rise. In use until 1817, it was subsequently updated and rebuilt, finally ending up as an electrical generator until 1963. The building was demolished in 1968 when that arm of the Seine was rearranged for navigation. A regional waterworks company still owns the site and uses electrical motors to pump water from the Croissy aquifer to some of the original reservoirs in Marly.

The original Louis XIV Machine included not just an enormous structure on the river itself, but sprawled 600 meters all the way up the hill, comprising pumping stations, holding tanks, reservoirs, pipes and an intricate system of mechanical linkages to power pumps on the hill from the waterwheels below. Several accounts of the period describe the infernal noise this all generated, keeping Mme du Barry (Louis XV's last mistress) and her guests awake in her nearby chateau.. Sixty maintenance workers were employed to keep it running. Pumping at full capacity, it could add over a million gallons in 24 hours to the Marly reservoirs. Nothing of the original Machine system has survived except for the Aqueduct, but the U shaped building at the bottom of the hill was part of the original complex. Foundation remnants can still be seen on the hill, which was the large, mid-slope reservoir. A small farmhouse, painted by Sisley, was originally part of the metalwork forges of the complex, but is in ruins today.

The chief engineer for the project was Arnold de Ville and the "contractor" was Rennequin Sualem (after whom the quai by the machine is now named). Louis XIV had a small chateau built in 1684 for de Ville as a reward for his work (and certainly to facilitate service calls for the extremely complex machinery). This building is the core of what would become theChateau du Barry, which eventually was given by Louis XV to Madame Dubarry. She expanded it, and later outgrew it which led to the construction of the Pavillon du Barry.

Excerpt from Louis XIV and the Creation of Versailles, by Ian Dunlop, describing the quest for water

More images of La Machine de Marly

The Fountains of Versailles in the Time of Louis XIV

Annotated Site Plan of the Machine

Engraving of the 14 wheels

Engraving of birdeye
view and section of
the Machine

Sisley's painting of the
1858 Machine de Marly

Excerpt from l'Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers de Diderot et d'Alembert about the original Machine, published in the mid 18th century.

A very detailed description of the Machine and all its components was written by Bernard Belidor in his book Architecture hydraulique... in the mid eighteenth century. His explanation of the river pumps is illustrated here. The full Machine de Marly abstract from his book can be read here. The entire book is available at Gallica, the Bibliotheque Numérique de la Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Reference Sources:

Architecture hydraulique, ou L'art de conduire, d'élever et de ménager les eaux pour les différens besoins de la vie
Bernard Belidor, 1784

Grandes Eaux a Versailles
Barbet, 1907

La Machine de Marly Exposition booklet
Jacques and Monique Lay, 1998

Musée Promenade, Louveciennes

Text copyright David Pendery 2008