Breast Pumps Through History

Breast Pumps Through History

The Industrial Revolution brought about some major changes to breast pumps – which had been, for hundreds of years, glass vials. These mechanical breast pumps paved the way for the electric breast pumps we know today. Here’s a brief look at breast pumps through history.


1854 – The first mechanical breast pump patent

The first breast pump patent was filed by Orwell H. Needham in 1854. Orwell’s breast pump included flanges made of flexible rubber to ease the discomfort normally experienced with the glass flanges of conventional breast pumps at the time. The goal was to mimic, as much as possible, the sensation of a nursing baby.

In addition to focusing on comfort and efficiency, Needham’s breast pump was intended to be portable. The pump used a bellows to pump air, fitted into a box which was also intended to store the breastshields when not in use. And, it used flexible rubber tubing to connect the breastshields to the box.


1874 – The removable milk collection bottle

Inventors Robert C. Gray and Charles E. Gassin made changes to the breast pump that are seen in breast pumps through history and still in use today. Most notably, their breast pump included a milk collection vial which was removable from the breastshield. The vial was threaded at the top and could be unscrewed from the flange, much like the milk collection bottles that screw into the breastshields of today.

You could also completely disassemble the milk collection kits, making it easier to thoroughly clean each part – thanks, guys!


1898 – Improving vacuum technology

Joseph H. Hoover endeavoured to make his breast pump more gentle than those available at the time. He incorporated vacuum technology and a spring to make suction from the vacuum less abrupt and more comfortable.

By the use of a spring the tension is increased as the air is exhausted and the spring is compressed and decreased as the spring resumes its normal shape, which by the use of weights the tension is increased slightly by the momentum acquired by the descending weight as the air chamber is distended... This variation relieves the constant pull on the breast that would take place if the action was direct.


1905 – Piston technology and ergonomic design leading to manual breast pumps available today

Hubert H. Halstead improved on Hoover’s invention by incorporating a true piston – an air chamber with a spring interior to control release time – onto the breast pump. He also focused on ergonomics and convenience by including finger holds, which made it much easier to use with two hands. While previous mechanical breast pump technology was cumbersome and considered for use in medical settings, this was the first that was necessarily intended to be operated by the woman pumping her own breasts. Thanks, Hubert!

To use the pump, you’d pull and release the handle, which is not too different from some of the manual breast pumps still available today.


1908 – Introducing ‘hands-free’

Joel S. Gilbert invented a breast pump with two bulbs, which served two purposes: milk collection and suction – yay, convenience!

What’s noteworthy about this pump is that worked on its own. According to Gilbert, “The great advantage of my device is, there is no manipulation nor repeated collapsing of the suction-bulb.” To use this pump, you’d simply deflate the bulbs and then attach them to your breasts, and the pump would do all the work. This paved the way to the invention of automatic breast pumps – for which our hands are very thankful.


1928 – Exploring faster cycle speeds

Breast pumps have, and still do, operate by vacuum on a suck-and-release cycle. Cycle speed is measured in how many of these cycles occur in a minute. Up until 1928, cycle speed of mechanical breast pumps had been very slow because they were determined by how quickly the user could squeeze the bulb (or pull the piston) and how fast – within the physical constraints of the pump – the vacuum could be established.

Inventor Woodard Colby’s breast pump was a game changer because cycle speeds could greatly increase with his pump. This is because the suck-and-release cycle did not require a complete release of the vacuum like other modern breast pumps of the time. The vacuum was intermittently interrupted near the breast shield, while a continuous vacuum remained on through the entire pumping session.

Colby’s breast pump design needed a much smaller amount of air to create a vacuum than ever before. This design is very similar to what’s being used today – Colby’s breast pump had a valve on the breastshield! – and is part of the reason breast pump motors have been able to decrease in size.


1942 – First hospital grade electric breast pump

Swedish engineer Einar Egnell was asked by a group of gynecologists to develop a better breast pump in 1939. After years of research and trials, here’s what he came up with in 1942:

Einar Egnell invented the SMBTM, the  rst safe, effective hospital-grade pump. Photo courtesy of Upplandsmuseet.

Einar Egnell invented the SMBTM, the first safe, effective hospital-grade pump. Photo courtesy of Upplandsmuseet. 

This heavy, clunky machine doesn’t look like much, but it marked the start of safer, standardized milk expression technology in hospitals around the globe. The SMB, which used Woodard Colby’s milk collection kit, was later acquired by Ameda and sold internationally to hospitals.


1980 – The first portable hospital grade pump

Medela built on Egnell’s technology by endeavouring to make the breast pump more portable. The Medela pump stands on a wheeled cart making it much safer and easier to move around the hospital.


1993 – First microprocessor on a breast pump

Ameda was the first to put a microprocessor into their Elite hospital grade breast pump in 1993. This paved the way for more complex pumping programs and automation.


1994 – Backflow protectors

Ameda was also the first to put backflow protectors on their milk collection kits – a huge improvement in hygine standards, protecting against transmissible diseases, and preventing mould from entering the breast pump motor and making them suitable for multiple users.


1998 – Breast pumps outside of the hospital

Up until 1990s, breast pumps were considered for use in the hospital by medical professionals. Occasionally women would rent or buy a hospital grade breast pump for use in the home. Breast pumps at this time were clunky and expensive. The Ameda Purely Yours was the first personal grade pump available on the market. Medela followed suit, offering their Pump In Style breast pump in in the
early 2000s.

The turn of the century was truly revolutionary because breast pumps became more mainstream, allowing women to pump milk outside of the home for their babies. Breast pump companies began popping up all over the world, including Spectra who would bring affordable hospital grade breast pumps around the world.


1999 – Hospital grade breast pumps for home use

Hospital grade breast pumps were until this point expensive, but some women relied on their power and strength to maintain milk supply. If you needed a hospital grade pump for long term use, your choice was either to spend thousands of dollars on a pump, or rent one – both costly options.

Korean company Spectra was a game changer because they manufactured hospital grade breast pumps at a much more affordable price. They quickly became popular in markets around the world because women could purchase a hospital grade breast pump for home use without compromising on quality and power. In the United States when the Affordable Care Act was passed, medical insurance companies were required to pay $500 toward the purchase of a breast pump – and, since Spectra breast pumps were all under this price, they gained popularity there too.


2016 – Pumpables

Pumpables was founded in 2016, and we are primarily – and proudly – made up of mothers who have breastfed our children. We’ve all used pumps and experienced all the pain points first-hand. Breast pumps, through all their advancements since 1854, have been primarily designed by men. We appreciate how far they’ve come along, but we think we can do better!

The Pumpables Milk Genie breast pump was the first personal grade pump to have an integrated memory allowing you to save your favorite program, truly making hands-free pumping an option – a feature previously only available on expensive hospital grade pumps.

Back to blog

Are you worried about shield fit? Download the Pumpables measuring tool to ensure you're using the right size