A Brief History of Water Purification

Water treatment technology is a modern development, but the concept of water purification dates back to ancient times.

Early purification methods

Documentation as far back as 2000 B.C. cites heating, boiling, and straining water as widely accepted methods of water purification. The main goal of ancient peoples was to create better looking and tasting water by removing its cloudiness, known as turbidity.

It wasn’t until after 500 B.C. when ancient Greek physician Hippocrates discovered the healing powers of water. He invented the first known water filter (appropriately named the Hippocratic sleeve) that trapped debris causing foul taste and odor. Another notable advancement during this time were Roman aqueducts, which used gravity to propel water long distances and paved the way for modern engineering.

Fast forwarding to 1627, a British scientist, Sir Francis Bacon, took the first serious interest in water purification. He began experimenting with sand filtration to take salt particles out of sea water. The invention of the microscope almost 50 years later enabled scientists to actually see water micro organisms, leading to the first domestic water filtration systems in the 1700’s.

Transition to public health

Concern from water taste to water safety came to light with the breakout of cholera in the 1800’s. British scientist, John Snow, discovered the disease was transmitted via water in 1854, developing chlorine disinfection as a way to kill the bacteria. Diseases like cholera and typhoid became less and less common because of his discovery and prompted significant strides in public health. In 1890, America was the first to implement a public sand filtration system that added a powerful jet stream combined with sediment removal. Water softeners were invented shortly thereafter in 1903.

Although drinking water standards for water supplies were first carried out in 1914, it would take until the 1940’s before standards were applied to municipal drinking water. The Clean Water Act of 1972 and Safe Drinking Water Act of ‘74 called more attention to the modern idea that every citizen had a right to safe drinking water. A shift in focus from waterborne illnesses to water pollution took shape as modern industry boomed.

Water purification today

Today’s water treatment is centered around the latest technology that provides quality water. By current standards, “high quality” means free of as many potentially harmful by-products as possible. More sophisticated methods of filtration have taken shape as source water protection, like the principle of reverse osmosis: forcing water through a membrane barrier, the membrane capturing contaminants so they don’t pass through. Water softeners, drinking water, and whole-house filtration systems have become the norm, aimed at enriching life and contributing to overall well-being.

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