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The History of Water Treatment

The History of Water Treatment

Clean water has come a long way. In the age of great water filters, clean water has become as accessible as ever. With a water filter, anyone can collect fresh water and purify it to make it drinkable. Besides that, there are many choice water treatment processes available nowadays for any type of water. However, it didn’t always use to be so.

Before modern water filters and current water treatment processes were invented, there were many ways that water was treated to make it ready to drink. Some of our methods even borrow ideas from some of those older water treatment methods. Let’s take a dive into the history of water treatment.

When the Indians Discovered Boiling

Indians Discovered Boiling

Boiling was one of the earliest methods of water treatment. You might have done it a few times to get rid of disease-causing microorganisms. But you’re probably not aware of exactly how ancient the practice is. Boiling as a method of water treatment goes as far back as ancient Indians. Although, their reasons for using this technique were fundamentally different from mine and yours.

They didn’t know about microorganisms, but they vaguely understood that boiling water might purify them. Of course, it didn’t remove gravel and other impure particles. But it could bring about changes in the water’s smell and taste.

Water filters were not yet invented, and their techniques of separation were not as great. So, the particulate impurities were hard to remove. They could only make do with what boiling could achieve. And considering that even Kings then could get nothing better than the rest, they were probably most satisfied with it. After all, even though they didn’t know it, boiling purified their water by killing off microorganisms.

How Coagulation Helped the Egyptians

That’s where the water treatment techniques of the ancient Egyptians come in. You must have heard a lot about alum, or maybe very little. Either way, you’ve probably made use of it at one time or the other, or perhaps you’ve only seen it used.

This method is based on a coagulant. A coagulant is a chemical used for settling particulate impurities that boiling cannot remove. So, you can be sure that the Indians would have been grateful if they had such a technique. But they didn’t, because it was the Egyptians who discovered it.

That means thousands of years ago, some people had access to a similar level of clean water you enjoy right now. It might not have been as perfect, but it was healthy and clean enough to help them survive conveniently. Through boiling and coagulation, water can be made significantly clean and healthy. That explains why these techniques, first used by Indians and Egyptians, are still widely used today.

The Ancient Greeks’ Use of Water Sieves

Ancient Greek Water Treatment

If you think that there are impure particles that a coagulate like alum can’t remove, you’re correct. Because the Greeks must have known of its coagulating properties but still invented the water sieve. The water sieve can be seen as a kind of proto-water filter. Except that, with the Greeks, it usually came in the form of a bag.

This filtering bag was used to separate particles and sediments from the water. It was primarily done to get rid of the undesirable taste and smell from the water. This technique was more effective than the coagulating effects of alum because the suspending power of alum does not settle particles that are too light or too few.

Moreover, alum does not remove the particles entirely from the body of water. But the water sieve is intended to produce exactly that result. Nevertheless, there are modern coagulating techniques that work better than that of the Egyptians. Those old sieves have been improved upon and replaced by modern filters.

Francis Bacon and Sand Filtration

As you can see, the ancient world developed some sophisticated water treatment methods. But no new improvement would be made on those techniques until the 17th century. More improvements would come in a period known as the Dark Ages, which started after the fall of Rome.

During those times, people were not very inspired to discover fine things, or so they say. That’s why the discovery of new water treatment techniques resumed only when Francis Bacon attempted sand filtration for the first time. It was an advanced technique for removing salt particles from water.

He didn’t quite get it right, but it was a notable attempt because others successfully did the job in the same century. During the early days of filtration, the technology was not designed to be effective against microorganisms. Hence, water contamination could lead to outbreaks of deadly diseases.

Thankfully, modern filtration techniques are created with viruses and bacteria in mind. That’s why your water filter works so well.

The Invention of Water Chlorination

Water disinfection was invented to counteract the deadly effects of water contamination. The first form of water disinfection was chlorination. It was invented by John Snow – no relation to HBO’s Game of Thrones character. This John Snow was no warrior. He was an important British scientist. He realized that the cholera epidemic in 1854 was caused by contamination by sewage water, so he applied chlorine to the water to purify it. This is precisely how your tap water is purified today, and it’s also why your swimming pool is treated with chlorine.

This video explains in more detail, how the water chlorination breakpoint works:

Of course, water chlorination can have some adverse effects on the environment and health. That’s why the water filter is increasingly popular. It filters out harmful chemicals and microorganisms while retaining natural minerals, palatable smell as well as taste.