Now, you may think that this is going to be long, but it’s really not; and the reason is because there was so little done and understanding of how to purify water that it was by happenstance that a lot of things came about.
Long long ago
The first record that we have of anybody distilling or trying to purify water were the Egyptians. Now, prior to this, we understand that safe drinking water was based on two basic principles: Did it taste good? What’d it smell like? Obviously, if it didn’t taste good, they weren’t going to drink it. And if it smelled funky, they weren’t going to drink it, either.
Egyptians (1450 B.C.)
So let’s get back to the Egyptians. Now, what they did was they used a series of brass basins and ceramic pots and siphons to move water around. Really, what they were doing was simply aerating it as well as allowing it to clarify. Now, they were dipping water out of the Nile. The Nile is typically kind of muddy. So they were just simply letting it settle, pulling the clean water off the top, and drinking that. Not really purifying, but at the time, they thought that’s what they were doing.
Greeks and Romans
Hippocrates (460 – 370 B.C.)
Let’s fast-forward about 1,000 years to Greece. Hippocrates wrote a treatise called “On Airs, Waters, and Places.” Now, he was the first pioneer of medicine. He understood that there was a relationship between what man was consuming and how well he felt. And one of the things that he talked about was that . . . and he said, this is a quote from the treatise, he said, “Water contributes much to health.” Now, he understood the importance of that, but really didn’t understand how to purify water. So Hippocrates didn’t really make any improvements in purification of water other than to draw a correlation between the fact that good, wholesome water was healthy.
Pliny (23 – 79 A.D.)
So now, let’s advance a little bit in time, and let’s go to the Romans. There was a guy by the name of Pliny. And about 500 years after Hippocrates, Pliny (this would make us about AD 23 to AD 79), realized that if you boiled water, placed it in glass, and then placed that or packed that in snow, it made the water more wholesome. Pliny didn’t realize that he was actually purifying water. He thought he was just simply trying to make it taste better, not understanding that what was really required here to purify water was to remove the impurities: the solids as well as the viruses and bacteria that were suspended in water and that would cause health problems.
Sextus Jilius Frontinus (97 A.D.)
Now, let’s fast-forward about another 30 years to another Roman by the name of Sextus Julius Frontinus, who, in AD 97, became the curator of aquarium. Now, his job and responsibility was to make sure that all those beautiful aqueducts (the ones that you see in all the old Roman pictures that moved massive amounts of water around), his job was to make sure that they worked correctly. Now, he tried several different things and was known for trying to become more knowledgeable in whatever his assignments were; so at a young age, this Sextus decided that what he was going to do is try to find out how he could clarify the water more and perhaps even remove some of the bad odors and tastes from it. So, in the aqueducts, what he would do is he placed pea gravel and then a fine sand, so as the organic material was passing through this pea gravel, it would pick up the solids, and then the smaller particles would be trapped using this sand filter. Now, this was extremely new. Before, it was just like a clarification process. But now, he’s actually trying to come up with a way to filter it.
Age of Enlightenment (1600s – 1780s)
Now, we jump from AD 100 all the way to the Age of Enlightenment. And that, believe it or not, is all the way to the 1600s. There were a few things that came along, and different people and different cultures would have done different things, but for the sake of argument, not really much of anything changed. And then suddenly, during this Age of Enlightenment, there were just copious amounts of research done, and lots of people were using the new scientific method to discover how things worked. And by observation and being keenly aware of what was going on in nature, they tried all different kind of things.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)
So during this Age of Enlightenment, we have a fellow who shows up on the scene by the name of Sir Francis Bacon, who lived from 1561 to 1626. Now, he had extensive writings and lots and lots of research during his lifetime. The year after his death, there was a book that was published with his name as the author, and the book was called “Natural History in Ten Centuries,” published in 1627. And in that book, one of the things that Sir Francis Bacon comes up with is that there are three ways to purify water, and they’re real simple: using filtration, boiling, and distillation.
Now, the filtration at the time would have just been with gravel and sand (some places used a very thick fabric of wool, and sometimes even flax or cotton), and then boiling, of course. And the distillation process is just a simple matter of getting a large basin, putting the dirty water in there, and letting it clarify – solids go to the bottom, the good water stays on the top, you skim it or siphon it off, and it’s drinkable. The problem was that because of the difficulty of trying to boil large amounts of water, what ended up really happening was everybody just filtered it and let it sit for a while. Now, all of a sudden, it really changed a lot of perspectives for people who were trying in municipalities to make potable water for the people who lived there.
Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895)
Now again, this Age of Enlightenment was all kinds of sciences. And as this came to a close, there were a few very notable people that came along. One specifically that we’re interested in because of water was a Frenchman by the name of Louis Pasteur, who lived from 1822 to 1895. So this brings us really up to modern times. And around the mid-19th century, Louis Pasteur – and you’ll notice that the name sounds like “pasteurize,” and that’s exactly what he did – he figured out, using the brand new technology of the microscope, that living in water were little tiny bacteria and viruses. He referred to them as “wee beasties.” And the interesting thing is that as he figured out what these things were (giving them names and finding out that these were really the things that were causing the greatest amount of problem), he then proposed a way, through boiling, that we were able to remove these “wee beasties” from our water supply.
Then we have the advances that came along as municipalities began to grow, and the infrastructure of nations and communities began to grow, that the water processing plants started to come along. And they used a three-fold method of filters, and different elements of filters, particularly using organic materials like gravel and sand to the remove the solids from our water. Then they used separation tanks to get the really tiny solids that just made it look murky, and separate those.
And now, we use chemicals to clarify and purify our water.
And that is the history of water purification.