article Fall 2020

Why the Engineer Fountain ACTUALLY Doesn’t Work

Faulty jets? Leaky pipes? Not enough water in Madison? Find out the real reason why the Descendant’s fountain doesn’t work.

Why, on a campus full of engineers, is there a fountain that does not spray water? I sat down (virtually) with Dean Ian Robertson to find out.

The Descendant’s Fountain, or Máquina (Spanish for machine) is the “showpiece” of the College of Engineering campus, according to Robertson.

“It’s one of those things that brings together art and engineering,”

– Ian Robertson

The fountain was designed by William Conrad Severson in 1994. Besides being a centerpiece for the engineering campus, the structure was initially a learning tool for students. When it was first built, students were tasked with programming the water feature using a logic controller. Students were also responsible for routine mechanical maintenance in the underground control room nicknamed “the dungeon.”

When the fountain was built, viewers could wave their hands over sensors in the walkway and trigger the fountain to spray. The controller could also sense temperature and wind patterns to ensure that the spray would not create an icy danger zone on the sidewalk below.

But this fountain has been shut off for over six years.

A shot of the descendant’s fountain during winter. Photo by Joshua Redfearn.

There are rumors that the fountain was not properly constructed, that the water jets were misplaced and would spew water everywhere, or even that the city of Madison does not have enough water to support it.

“They’re all wrong,” Robertson says. He explained that the complex piping system is likely blocked, the pump system needs to be replaced, and the control system is corroded and outdated.

Even if the faculty did want to students to try to fix it, the “dungeon” control room no longer complies with safety regulations. Student access would require significant safety training and gear.

“The idea of letting students work on it would be a challenge these days,” Robertson says. “We are not going to be working on the fountain anytime soon.”

The College of Engineering campus may be seeing some bigger changes instead.

The University of Wisconsin Schools System has requested state funds for a new building. In phase one of the project, they will replace 1410 Engineering Drive with a new seven-story building. In phase two, the building will be expanded into the green space east of the Engineering Research Building. An active two-story bridge will connect these two structures.

This new building will house undergraduate classrooms and teaching labs. It will also have space for student organizations to work on design projects.

“We really want to bring more students together from different departments to work on design projects, but we need new facilities to make that happen,” Robertson says. “I think it is really exciting.”

“We are not going to be working on the fountain anytime soon.”

– Ian Robertson

For fans of the fountain, its repairs may be addressed in the future. But the College of Engineering’s current priority is the new building to improve student’s learning experience.

“If we can get the new labs and the new classrooms built, and we start working on what the new landscaping would look like, then we can figure out what we’re going to do with the fountain,” Robertson says.

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