For tourists, it's law to get your picture taken in front of the Jet d’ Eau, especially at an odd angle, so that Geneva's fountain spurts from your mouth. For locals, it instills a sense of pride, a symbol of a forward-looking and multicultural city that safeguards its environment. You can even see it from a plane at a height of 10,000 meters! The best way to see this landmark is by simply walking by the lake or the quayside at Eaux-Vives.
But did you know that Geneva's iconic fountain was initially the accidental result of a solution to a technical problem? Let's go back to 1886.
1886: the link between the Jet d’ Eau and Usine des Forces Motrices
During the end of the 19th century, Geneva was flourishing. The city grew from 64,000 in 1850 to 100,000 in 1890, and many of its industries were rapidly growing.
By 1880, it became clear that the hydraulic plant located at the Pont de la Machine was not powerful enough to provide the needed energy to the city, so local authorities agreed to build a new plant that took advantage of the river Rhône's motor power (or forces motrice in French).
In 1886, Geneva built a hydroelectric powerhouse plant at Coulouvrenière, which used the river Rhône's current to power the city's water supply and the machinery in hundreds of watchmaking and jewelry workshops in the city. It used pressurized water to transmit mechanical power to the city through a network of pipes.
This hydroelectric plant is known today as the Usine des Forces Motrices that, in itself, has been classified as a historic monument in 1988 and is now mainly open for cultural shows and theatre productions. Its interior is designed in the Beaux-Arts style so fashionable in the late-19th century, and the entire structure is built void of any internal supporting pillars.
As you may have already noticed, the plant is far away from the current Jet d'Eau's location. This also doesn't help explain the existence of Geneva’ s fountain as we know it today.
Well, the first version of the Jet d'Eau was actually a release of water from the hydraulic power network. Every evening, when the craftsmen turned off their machines one by one, there would be pressure build-up in the system and the supply of the pressurized water was hard to adapt to the decreasing demand. So what would happen was that engineers had to manually stop the pumps one by one.
But soon after, a temporary outlet was devised, a release valve outside the main hall of the powerhouse. This allowed pressure to be lifted off the system and released a fountain of water in the process. Geneva's fountain was born.
At the time, the jet was just 30 meters high and was only released in the evening, when the engineers activated the valve.
Over time, an engineering innovation meant that they didn't need to release this excess pressure any longer. But by then, the Jet d'Eau ceased to merely become a temporary solution to a technical problem.
It was attracting attention from everyone in the city, and was visible from afar. People would also pass by the plant during the evening to see the water get released.
It was through this fascination and riling of cultural imagination that the city of Geneva built a second Jet d'Eau at the quayside of Eaux-Vives.
1891 - Present: Jet d’Eau at Eaux-Vives
The Jet d’Eau was to become one of the city's most popular cultural attractions. This second Jet d'Eau was inaugurated in 1891 for the Federal Gymnastics Festival and to celebrate the 600th years of the Swiss Confederation, and released water from the drinking system at a height of 90 meters — three times higher than that of the original one.
In 1951, another couple of changes were made. Instead of using precious drinking water, it ejected filtered lakewater, and at an even greater height — 140 meters to be exact. If the second iteration of the Jet d'Eau was as high as New York's Statue of Liberty, this was 50 meters higher than the status.
Most recently, a metallic mobile walkway and esplanade of solid oak were added next to the Jet d’Eau, from the wharf to the rotunda, to allow people of reduced mobility to go to the pier and participate in guided tours.
How does the Jet d’Eau work?
The Jet d'Eau's nozzle uses a technology to allow the fountain to eject at this rate, and this turns the Jet d'Eau white. But a recent innovation was the addition of an LED projector box, which emits light to change the water's colors, such as those of the national flag during various events.
The Jet d'Eau is an impressive feat of the hydraulic engineering in action. Its two 500 kW pumps - aptly-named Jura and Salève (and made by Swiss manufacturer Sulzer) have a combined force of about 1340 horsepower and can eject water at a rate of 500 liters per second at 200 km per hour (120 mph). This means there are 7 tonnes of lakewater suspended in the air at any moment!
Geneva’s fountain is managed by Services Industriels de Genève (SIG), the main public utility company that maintains Geneva’s energy-related services.
Created in 1896, the SIG was the result of the municipalization of private gas and electricity companies serving the city of Geneva. While originally subjected to market competition, in 1931, after popular vote, the SIG fully became an establishment under public law.
When will the Jet d’Eau turn on?
The Jet d’Eau is managed by paid retirees working for the SIG, who would still manually turn Geneva's fountain on and off.
Until the pandemic struck, they would turn the Jet d'Eau off under two circumstances, both caused by weather disturbances. When it got too windy, they stopped the jet, before the spray hit the quayside boats. When the temperature dropped below freezing point, the jet was stopped to prevent its water from covering the waterways with a thin sheet of slippery ice.
Today, as everyone is told to stay home to quell the spread of the virus, the Jet d'Eau has disappeared from the skyline for almost two months.
As Antonio Hodgers, the President of the Council of State of Geneva has said, the Jet d’Eau will stay home, until this situation is over.
This was to ensure the safety of those operating the iconic landmark and turning it on will only happen once this crisis is over, as a symbolic way to celebrate the city’s triumph over an invisible enemy.