History of water treatment

Created by S.M. Enzler MSc

Significant historical events forming the basis for today's water treatment systems

In ancient Greek and Sanskrit (India) writings dating back to 2000 BC, water treatment methods were recommended. People back than knew that heating water might purify it, and they were also educated in sand and gravel filtration, boiling, and straining. The major motive for water purification was better tasting drinking water, because people could not yet distinguish between foul and clean water. Turbidity was the main driving force between the earliest water treatments. Not much was known about micro organisms, or chemical contaminants.

After 1500 BC, the Egyptians first discovered the principle of coagulation. They applied the chemical alum for suspended particle settlement. Pictures of this purification technique were found on the wall of the tomb of Amenophis II and Ramses II.

After 500 BC, Hippocrates discovered the healing powers of water. He invented the practice of sieving water, and obtained the first bag filter, which was called the ‘Hippocratic sleeve’. The main purpose of the bag was to trap sediments that caused bad tastes or odours.

In 300-200 BC, Rome built its first aqueducts. Archimedes invented his water screw.
The Assyrians built the first structure that could carry water from one place to another in the 7th century BC. It was 10 meters high and 300 meters long, and carried the water 80 kilometres across a valley to Nineveh. Later, the Romans started building many of these structures. They named them aqueducts. In Latin, aqua means ‘water’, and ducere means ‘to lead’. Roman aqueducts were very sophisticated pieces of engineering that were powered entirely by gravity, and carried water over extremely large distances. They were applied specifically to supply water to the big cities and industrial areas of the Roman Empire. In the city of Rome alone more than 400 km of aqueduct were present, and it took over 500 years to complete all eleven of them. Most of the aqueducts were underground structures, to protect them in times of was and to prevent pollution. Together, they supplied Rome with over one million cubic meters of water on a daily basis. Today, aqueducts can still be found on some locations in France, Germany, Spain and Turkey. The United States have even taken up building aqueducts to supply the big cities with water again. Many of the techniques the Romans used in their aqueducts can be seen in modern-day sewers and water transport systems.

Archimedes’ screw
Archimedes was a Greek engineer that lived between 287 and 212 BC, and was responsible for many different inventions. One of his findings was a device to transport water from lower water bodies to higher land. He called this invention the water screw. It is a large screw inside a hollow pipe that pumps up water to higher land. Originally, it was applied to irrigate cropland and to lift water from mines and ship bilges. Today, this invention is still applied to transport water from lower to higher land or water bodies. In The Netherlands for example, such structures can be found in the city of Zoetermeer (see picture), in the west close to The Hague. The water screw formed the basis for many modern-day industrial pumps.

During the Middle Ages (500-1500 AD), water supply was no longer as sophisticated as before. These centuries where also known as the Dark Ages, because of a lack of scientific innovations and experiments. After the fall of the Roman Empire enemy forces destroyed many aqueducts, and others were no longer applied. The future for water treatment was uncertain.

Than, in 1627 the water treatment history continued as Sir Francis Bacon started experimenting with seawater desalination. He attempted to remove salt particles by means of an unsophisticated form of sand filtration. It did not exactly work, but it did paved the way for further experimentation by other scientists.

Experimentation of two Dutch spectacle makers experimented with object magnification led to the discovery of the microscope by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the 1670s. He grinded and polished lenses and thereby achieved greater magnification. The invention enables scientists to watch tiny particles in water. In 1676, Van Leeuwenhoek first observed water micro organisms.

In the 1700s the first water filters for domestic application were applied. These were made of wool, sponge and charcoal. In 1804 the first actual municipal water treatment plant designed by Robert Thom, was built in Scotland. The water treatment was based on slow sand filtration, and horse and cart distributed the water. Some three years later, the first water pipes were installed. The suggestion was made that every person should have access to safe drinking water, but it would take somewhat longer before this was actually brought to practice in most countries.

In 1854 it was discovered that a cholera epidemic spread through water. The outbreak seemed less severe in areas where sand filters were installed. British scientist John Snow found that the direct cause of the outbreak was water pump contamination by sewage water. He applied chlorine to purify the water, and this paved the way for water disinfection. Since the water in the pump had tasted and smelled normal, the conclusion was finally drawn that good taste and smell alone do not guarantee safe drinking water. This discovery led to governments starting to install municipal water filters (sand filters and chlorination), and hence the first government regulation of public water.

In the 1890s America started building large sand filters to protect public health. These turned out to be a success. Instead of slow sand filtration, rapid sand filtration was now applied. Filter capacity was improved by cleaning it with powerful jet steam. Subsequently, Dr. Fuller found that rapid sand filtration worked much better when it was preceded by coagulation and sedimentation techniques. Meanwhile, such waterborne illnesses as cholera and typhoid became less and less common as water chlorination won terrain throughout the world.

But the victory obtained by the invention of chlorination did not last long. After some time the negative effects of this element were discovered. Chlorine vaporizes much faster than water, and it was linked to the aggravation and cause of respiratory disease. Water experts started looking for alternative water disinfectants. In 1902 calcium hypo chlorite and ferric chloride were mixed in a drinking water supply in Belgium, resulting in both coagulation and disinfection. In 1906 ozone was first applied as a disinfectant in France. Additionally, people started installing home water filters and shower filters to prevent negative effects of chlorine in water.

In 1903 water softening was invented as a technique for water desalination. Cations were removed from water by exchanging them by sodium or other cations, in ion exchangers.

Eventually, starting 1914 drinking water standards were implemented for drinking water supplies in public traffic, based on coliform growth. It would take until the 1940s before drinking water standards applied to municipal drinking water. In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed in the United States. In 1974 the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was formulated. The general principle in the developed world now was that every person had the right to safe drinking water.

Starting in 1970, public health concerns shifted from waterborne illnesses caused by disease-causing micro organisms, to anthropogenic water pollution such as pesticide residues and industrial sludge and organic chemicals. Regulation now focused on industrial waste and industrial water contamination, and water treatment plants were adapted. Techniques such as aeration, flocculation, and active carbon adsorption were applied. In the 1980s, membrane development for reverse osmosis was added to the list. Risk assessments were enabled after 1990.

Water treatment experimentation today mainly focuses on disinfection by-products. An example is trihalomethane (THM) formation from chlorine disinfection. These organics were linked to cancer. Lead also became a concern after it was discovered to corrode from water pipes. The high pH level of disinfected water enabled corrosion. Today, other materials have replaced many lead water pipes.


History of drinking water treatment

History of water disinfection

Book on water history


Baker M.N., Taras M.J., 1981, The quest for pure water – The history of the twentieth century, volume I and II, Denver: AWWA

Christman K., 1998, The history of chlorine, Waterworld 14: page 66-67

Crittenden J.C., Rhodes Trussell R., Hand D.W., Howe K.J., Tchobanoglous G., 2005, Water treatment: Principles and design, 2nd edition, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Diodorus Siculus, 1939, Library of history, volume III, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, UK

EPA, 2000, The history of drinking water treatment, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water (4606), Fact Sheet EPA-816-F-00-006, United States

Outwater A., 1996, Water: A natural history, Basic Books, New York, USA




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