After reading this article talking about “toilet-to-tap” water in California, it got me thinking on how far the technology behind water treatment has come. It inspired me to do a little research and give you a history lesson on the history of water treatment.
Starting all the way back at 2000 BC, ancient Sanskrit and Greek writings have been found citing the process of boiling water and filtering it through sand. This was mostly done for taste purposes as they had no knowledge of dangerous microorganisms and bacteria back then.
Around 500 BC, Hippocrates made the process easier by creating the first bag filter that trapped sediments and other particles.
One of the biggest milestones in water treatment was the invention of the aqueduct by the Romans around 300 BC. The aqueducts were essentially sewers or pipelines that transported water over large distances by only using gravity. Most were placed underground but the ones above ground can still be seen today. They are certainly one of the greatest structural achievements built throughout history. Another great advancement, in terms of water transportation, was Archimedes’ Screw which was a rotating pump that could move water upwards at an incline. Just like the aqueducts, this invention greatly influenced future advancements and some instances of this pump can be seen in the Netherlands. Water treatment did not advance much during the Middle Ages.
The invention of the microscope in 1676, by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek, made people more aware of the microorganisms present in water. This greatly motivated the scientific community to look into water treatment again, since the methods at the time were insufficient in filtering out these microorganisms.
Water filters started to become really popular in the 1700s, and they were mostly made out of wool, sponge, and charcoal. 100 years later, the first water treatment plant was created by Robert Thom, in Scotland. Water was first transported from the plant by horse and cart. The first water pipes were installed only 3 years later. Scotland was certainly ahead of other countries as it took a long time for more and more countries to create similar municipal plants in all towns.
The outbreak of Cholera, a waterborne disease, prompted the first government regulation of public water. During the 1800s, thousands died from the disease in cities such as London, New York City, and New Orleans. If cities
didn’t already have a treatment plant, they were certainly going to build one soon in light of this scary disease. During this time, John Snow found that the reason for this outbreak was contamination by sewage water. Snow applied the newly discovered element, chlorine, to water. This was the first known instance of someone chemically disinfecting water. Waterborne illnesses greatly decreased as more and more countries began chlorinating their water. While chlorine was a proven disinfectant, it had side effects, particularly respiratory, for those drinking the water. People started installing filters in their home in order to remove the chlorine before consuming.
By the 20th century, most cities had efficient water treatment plants. Waterborne illnesses from microorganisms were no longer a worry. However, man made pollutants from pesticides and industrial sludge became a growing problem. In terms of America, two pieces of legislation greatly advanced and improved water quality across the country. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. This act greatly regulated how industries could discard of their waste. Just 2 years later, the government passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This act set standards across the board for all public water systems.
Some of the latest findings at the end of the 20th century were the processes of active carbon adsorption, aeration, and reverse osmosis.
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