History of Water Treatment

| , |

In the late summer of 1848, a new cholera epidemic struck London. The disease had already killed many thousands of people, most notably during the previous epidemic in 1831. The first symptom of cholera was queasiness, followed by stomach ache, vomiting, and diarrhea so severe that it caused victims to die of dehydration.

A clever physician by the name of John Snow was thirty-five at the time. He had seen death due to cholera all around him from his birth onwards, so he was eager to find out why it could spread so easily. Many physicians suspected that it had something to do with the air, but nobody had proven it as of yet.

Snow became obsessed, so he started interviewing his patients about very specific topics. He found out that the first symptoms of his patients were related to the digestive system. After a long study, he found out that patterns of the disease could be linked with specific water supplies. 

The Importance of Water Treatment

So, why does it matter? Well, it resulted in the fact that the water supply had to abide by newer and stricter rules. The story tells us a lot about the importance of pure water for a healthy life. The process that is used to make water appropriate for everyday use is called drinking water treatment. 

Everyday use, however, is more than just creating drinkable water. Water treatment removes contaminants and undesirable components, or reduces their concentration in general. It does so to make it suitable for drinking, but also for industrial water supply, irrigation, river flow maintenance, and water recreation, amongst others.

Water Treatment in Early Times

But, the story of water treatment didn’t start with a noble Brit by the name of John Snow. The dominant narrative says that it was already of relevance a lot earlier. 4000 years earlier, to be precise. 

Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Indian Populations

In ancient Greek and Sanskrit writing, it is already apparent that people knew pure water was important. From cooking water to filtering it, the ancient societies knew a fair bit about water treatment. It is the question, however, if the goal was to remove the bacteria from the water or if the goal was to make it taste better.

After 1500 BC, the Egyptians found out that certain substances made the water clearer. This meant that it was somewhat ‘naturally’ filtered, which they depicted quite clearly in the tomb of Amenophis II and Ramses II. 

Of course, the Egyptians didn’t have microscopes to see the exact process on cell level. But, that wasn’t needed, since the changes in the turbid water were visible with the naked eye.

READ MORE: Ancient Egypt Timeline

Hippocrates

From 500 BC onwards, a Greek by the name of Hippocrates came into play. The ‘Father of Medicine’ discovered that water was a very healing entity. He invented that the water could be sieved, bringing us the first bag filter. 

Again, this wasn’t necessarily to consciously take out harmful bacteria. Rather, it was to make the water taste and smell better. Indeed, the ‘Father of Medicine’ believed that the diseases were captured in the taste and smell itself, rather than the bacterias and other microorganisms.

READ MORE: Ancient Greece Timeline

Indigenous Populations and Water Treatment

What shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to water treatment are the elaborate mechanisms in even older populations. These might even be more valuable if we take into account the climate challenges of our times. 

Indeed, many Indigenous populations and communities have a way of treating nature that was – and still is – very effective. Yet, their history is largely unknown to the wider population due to continuous marginalization.

Development of Water Treatment?

While the above and below described developments of water treatment are definitely true, Indigenous groups see another narrative. That is to say, a ‘development’ in relation to water treatment means per definition that a new situation is an improvement of what it was before. But, what if it was already working perfectly? In such a case, no real development is needed anymore, right?

Some might think that something working perfectly is an illusion. But, when it comes to relating to nature, many Indigenous populations actually have a pretty convincing argument. Their way of living is by default in harmony with nature, rather than usage thereof. This way of living is reflected in their cosmovision.

There are many examples of such a cosmovision. Still, the dominant way of how we really know about these ways of water treatment is by analyzing the effect of colonization on the Indigenous ways of knowing. The actual ways of knowing are becoming a greater subject of research, but are unfortunately still pretty unknown to scientists.

Still a bit vague? Well, I’ll provide you with some examples. 

Beavers and Forests

Due to European settlers and overhunting, the beaver population in the U.S. has been exhausted since the 1600’s. Mostly, this was because their fur was considered ‘valuable’ by the settlers. 

Because of a vanishing beaver population, the ecosystems of the U.S. changed rapidly. This led to the water flows being affected heavily, since beaver dams are structures that manage the water flows. 

The water really became free flowing, while at a time of great beaver population the water is obstructed at some points. Respecting the ways of the beaver were therefore of great importance when it comes to evenly dividing the water over the land. 

Because the beaver population was disturbed, Native Americans became unable to manage their water systems: a system that before didn’t seem to have any problems. It goes without saying that it’s very questionable if the value of beaver fur exceeds the value of the system that they help maintain; the system that provided clean water across the land. 

Unfortunately, this is not the only example. Really, several encyclopedias can be written about this topic. Other examples are seen in the instances that the settler population started cutting the forests, created national parks, or obstructed the presence of Indigenous plant species

Many advancements in technology, therefore, seem to be focussed on the problems that become evident when society doesn’t live in harmony with nature. 

Sure, it might be somewhat irreversible at this point. That is to say, most of us live in concrete jungles anyway. Yet, it’s interesting to think about the argument of Indigenous populations, since it questions the very idea of technological development as a way out of the climate crisis. 

The Roman Empire and Water Treatment

Yet still, if we look at innovative capability, the Romans had some major innovations when it came to water treatment in the Western world. For example, during the Roman empire,  aqueducts became way more popularized. 

Aqueducts

Technically, the Assyrians built the first man made structure that could carry water from one place to another around 700 BC. However, the Romans started building many of these structures, so they were really the ones that popularized them.

It was useful in the Roman empire simply because the empire itself was so big. Every city had to be supplied with water. In the city of Rome alone, more than 400 km of aqueduct were present. Building all of the eleven aqueducts that made up these 400 km took over 500 years to complete. 

Mind you that most of the aqueducts were underground structures, which means that many of the techniques that the Romans used in their aqueducts come back in modern-day sewers and water transport systems.

After the Fall of the Roman Empire

While many fields see an increased sophistication when it comes to its development, the development of water treatment has some setbacks. These would occur during the middle ages, a time that is generally known to have little scientific innovations and experiments in general.

Francis Bacon

While there were already quite some advancements before, many of these were forgotten. This was partly due to the fact that many of the Roman aqueducts were destroyed, while the knowledge about them wasn’t passed on very effectively. In this sense, it’s actually quite similar to the Indigenous populations as described earlier.

But, Bacon for the rescue. Sir Francis Bacon, a man that seemed to engage in societal disciplines all over the board, started experimenting with seawater desalination. Basically what he did was trying to remove the salt particles of sea water. It didn’t really work, but at least he got the acknowledgement for trying and inspiring future scientists.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

Seemingly more successful in his attempt was a Dutch scientist by the name of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. His objective was to see what exactly was in the water that the people drank. 

Antonie grinded and polished lenses, until the point that he was able to achieve greater magnification. Because of this, he was able to identify microorganisms in the water; the basis for infectious diseases. 

Returning to John Snow 

We end where we started. Indeed, the discovery by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek made John Snow interested in the little particles of the water. He came to see it as a possible cause of the cholera epidemics.

As indicated, most of the reasons why water treatment was performed to begin with was to make it taste and smell better. Sure, there were some suspicions about its relationship with health, but nobody really focussed on that. Good tasting water was the main objective. Snow changed this narrative. 

New Norms for Water Treatment

After the discovery of John Snow, the norms for water shifted. It now focused more on the actual safety of water as derived from the microorganisms. This resulted in the fact that water chlorination became more widespread. Also, water softening was invented, which would become the legal standard from the 1940s onwards.

From there it was another thirty years before the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, which developed the principle that everyone has the right to safe water. This, too, sparked a movement that actually fighted for the rights of clean water, since it was now ingrained in the legislation. The acts as just described led to two things. 

On the one hand there were advancements in water treatment, while on the other hand the low quality of water in some regions became more apparent. Both of these developments really came together in the growing market for whole house water-filter systems. While it was first a societal encounter, nowadays you have tailored solutions for any household.

As should be evident, the history of water treatment is quite eventful. But, it’s not odd that it is this way. In the end, water is the very thing that makes us able to live. Therefore, finding the right way of handling water is a thing of great interest for many populations and thinkers in the history of the earth. 

Nowadays, you are able to pick the water filters for your personal situation yourself, something that has long been beyond any stretch of the imagination. 

How to Cite this Article

There are three different ways you can cite this article.

1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:

Maup van de Kerkhof, "History of Water Treatment", History Cooperative, September 23, 2022, https://historycooperative.org/history-of-water-treatment/. Accessed December 7, 2022

2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL:

https://historycooperative.org/history-of-water-treatment/

3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:

<a href="https://historycooperative.org/history-of-water-treatment/">History of Water Treatment</a>

Leave a Comment

Share
Tweet
Reddit
Pin
Email