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Water has always been the center of every civilization. Cities were built based on their proximity to water—and land near rivers, lakes, and other freshwater sources were prime pieces of farmland and real estate. 

For thousands of years, the only way people could discern whether a source of water was safe to drink was if it was clear, if it wasn’t saltwater, and if it didn’t have a bad smell. People around the world were getting sick and no one could figure out why. 

 

It wasn’t until around the 18th century that scientists started to question water as a possible culprit. The discoveries and innovations around water purification and treatment throughout this era would pave the way to our modern ways of purifying water on a large scale.

 

Water Purification In The Age of Enlightenment

The start of the 18th century brought the Age of Enlightenment. This time began a better understanding of how science, or “natural philosophy” as it was called in that era, can be used in daily life instead of just as a topic of conversation. 

 

The 1700s were a time when water safety methods, if there were any safety methods in place, focused on filtration as water treatment. Wool, sponges, charcoal, and sand were the most popular methods of filtering particles from water. By the 1700s, water filtration became more popular both in households and on a town-wide level.

 

Sir Francis Bacon

English scientist, philosopher, and writer Sir Francis Bacon helped advance large-scale water treatment systems in 1627. He experimented with water filters made from sand in the hopes of finding a way to make ocean water drinkable. His desalination methods didn’t work, but his research in water filtration techniques brought more scientists to begin experimenting with other methods in the following years and throughout the 18th century. 

 

John Gibb

In 1804, John Gibb would continue Bacon’s work to create the first filter using sand to strain water. His hometown of Paisley, Scotland would become the first town to have a filter facility delivering clean water to the entire town. This invention allowed London and other large cities near rivers to make their water source more potable to the masses.

 

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek brought an important finding to the scientific community in 1676: the discovery of bacteria. Using a homemade microscope, van Leeuwenhoek was the first to find forms of life invisible to the naked eye from pond water. Because of his work, he is commonly referred to as “the Father of Microbiology”. 

 

The discovery of a form of life once invisible to humans advanced water purification science by making scientists question whether water was as clean and safe as once thought. The idea that clear water is safe was now not entirely true. And scientists after van Leeuwenhoek would continue his work in microbiology to make water safe from a microbial level.

 

Phillippe La Hire

French scientist Phillippe La Hire was an early advocate for having fresh water available to entire towns. He presented the idea in 1703 to the Academy of Sciences that every household in Paris could have access to filtered water by using a sand filter and a rainwater cistern. His documentations also showed that groundwater was rarely contaminated. While his plans for Paris never came to fruition, he was involved in bringing clean water to the palace of Versailles.

 

Robert Thom

In 1804, Scotsman Robert Thom created the first municipal water treatment plant. He used slow sand filtration, and would then distribute the filtered water across town via a horse and cart. This system and idea that everyone in town should have access to safe drinking water were unique for its time, and it would take several decades before other countries would put together water safety systems similar to Thom’s. 

 

Henry Doulton

Englishman Henry Doulton was also a pioneer of early water filtration systems. After being commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1835, he invented the ceramic candle filter to treat water. His filter used ceramic’s small pore size to filter out contaminants like dirt, debris, and bacteria This inexpensive, easy-to-use, and effective filtration system is still used today in developing countries and is a popular system for backpackers. 

 

John Snow

Even though the discovery of bacteria happened nearly two centuries earlier, it wasn’t until 1854 that British scientist John Snow discovered cholera can be transmitted through water supplies. He also found that chlorinating the contaminated water could purify the supply and make it safe to drink. Chlorination is still a popular form of water purification today. 

 

Modern Water Purification 

The discoveries around water purification throughout the 18th century paved the way for our modern understanding of how our water supply can directly affect our health. Diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio can be contracted from contaminated water. Only after the discovery of bacteria in the mid-1600s did we understand that clear water does not necessarily mean clean water. The 19th century would see cholera and typhoid outbreaks on a large scale, which would in turn focus scientists’ attention on water disinfection in addition to simply filtration. 

 

Rules surrounding water safely for municipal drinking water like the United State’s Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 set the standard for other developed nations. 

 

Today, modern inventions like water purification tablets and straws, home-based water filters, and city water filtration plants all make clean water accessible and a part of our daily lives. But many developing countries today continue to struggle with having access to a clean and purified water supply. As of 2019, at least 2 billion people around the world use a contaminated water source, leading to an estimated 485,000 deaths per year.

 

The world still has a long way to go to provide clean water for everyone. But the scientific developments of the 18th century helped cultivate a better understanding of the importance of a clean and purified water supply.