The earliest evidence for this device occurred in a Babylonian text from circa 700 BC and may be referred to in Ecclesiastes 12:6. These were commonly powered by human or animal power. The device then appeared in ancient Egypt from circa 200 BC, featuring a pair of gear-wheels.
A version of this kind of pump was known in ancient Roman times, sometimes with pots fixed to the chain, which, as they passed over the top pulley, tipped the water out. This was written of by Philo of Byzantium in the 2nd century BC, mentioned by the historian Vitruvius around 30 BC, and fragments of these buckets were found on the Roman barges of Lake Nemi.
Complex chain pumps consisting of over 200 separate components were used extensively by Muslim inventors and engineers in the medieval Islamic world, where they are known as saqiya. The mechanical flywheel, used to smooth out the delivery of power from a driving device to a driven machine, was first employed by Ibn Bassal (fl. 1038-1075) of Islamic Spain for use in a saqiya chain pump.
An intricate device was featured in a manuscript by Al-Jazari in 1206, with chambered reservoirs, water wheel scoops, gear-wheels, and a chain pump, powered by the pull of an ox and water falling by gravity. The first known use of a crankshaft in a chain pump was featured in another one of al-Jazari's saqiya machines. The concept of minimizing intermittent working is also first implied in one of al-Jazari's saqiya chain pumps, which was for the purpose of maximising the efficiency of the saqiya chain pump. Al-Jazari also constructed a water-raising saqiya chain pump which was run by hydropower rather than manual labour, though the Chinese were also using hydropower for chain pumps prior to him. Saqiya machines like the ones he described have been supplying water in Damascus since the 13th century up until modern times, and were in everyday use throughout the medieval Islamic world.
Chain pumps were used in European mines during the Renaissance era, and illustrated by the mineralogist Georg Agricola in his De re metallica of 1556. They were used in dockyards, and a number formed part of the Portsmouth Block Mills complex. Chain pumps were commonly used on naval vessels of the time to pump the bilges, and examples are known in the nineteenth century for low-lift irrigation purposes.
From the 13th century onwards, the Chinese also used windmills (adopted from the Islamic world) as a means to power the motion of square-pallet chain pumps. Yet there were other types of chain pumps besides the square-pallet design. In Song Yingxing's (1587-1666) encyclopedic book the Tiangong Kaiwu of 1637, there is description and illustration of a cylinder-type chain pump, powered by waterwheels and leading water up from the river to an elevated plane full of agricultural crops.