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Water in, water out

How engineering cleaned up the flow

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January 2nd, 2018
Ancient Roman aqueduct in Segovia.

Ancient Roman aqueduct in Segovia.

The realm of invention encompasses a range of topics. To date, the Tribune’s inventor series has covered the stories of men and women who have contributed to a vast array of important fields, including mechanics, chemistry, communications, and electronics. 

These inventors and engineers, however, have often been tied individually to specific designs and creations, which is why we’ve decided to train our focus on a wider swath of progress—one that involved numerous great minds, years of trial and error, and the evolutionary process of human innovation.

Since the earliest days of civilization, the growth and survival of cities have depended on two things: moving clean water into town and flushing dirty water out.

Early success of aqueducts

For well over 1,000 years, civil engineers have been dealing with the challenge of moving potable water into populous regions. In the 500s A.D., the Peruvians were using primitive but relatively effective aqueducts to channel clean water from rivers and springs.

But it was the Romans who actually built some of the earliest efficient systems of water delivery. Their grand, bridge-like designs, supported by arches, featured the all-too-important gradient that enabled liquid to flow consistently and reliably over long distances.

Going back as far as 312 B.C., the Romans were able to utilize higher-altitude water sources by way of aqueducts that ran for over half a mile—an impressive feat for the time. To put this into perspective for the modern reader, these people managed to move clean water without the benefit of machinery, electricity, or vacuum pressure. 

These unknown, unnamed engineers succeeded in using solid stone construction and gravity alone. Thousands of years after their initial construction, aqueducts are still in use. 

One such system—part of the Central Arizona Project—currently runs water from the Colorado River to Central and Southern Arizona—a distance of roughly 350 miles.

The other challenge

Yet, perhaps, more important than bringing clean water into cities is flushing dirty water out of them. Through much of the nineteenth century, those towns considered “civilized” were little better than a loaded gun when it came to nature’s beverage.

Drinking water contaminated with animal or human waste, better known as cholera, was a constant threat and a near-instant death sentence. Worse still, the disease respected no social station and reached the highest levels of society.

On July 4, 1850, U.S. President Zachary Taylor spent a blazing hot afternoon in the shade on the White House lawn, snacking on freshly picked cherries and chilled milk. Either the fruit was “washed” with contaminated water or the milk’s ice cubes contained the bacteria.

Regardless, Taylor was dead in less than a week—the official diagnosis was cholera.

The president’s death is an object lesson in the importance of effective sewage systems. Nowhere was this more pressing than in the small and overcrowded metropolis of Paris, France.

One-fifteenth the size of London, the City of Light had over one million denizens by the 1860s. Frighteningly, as late as the 1840s, tank-bearing, horse-drawn drays provided the city’s supply of fresh water.

Eugene Belgrand

Needless to say, the sewer system was inadequate, and the opportunities for water-borne diseases copious. It was the industrious civil engineer Eugene Belgrand who saved Paris from itself. 

In 1865, Belgrand merged the Roman method of fresh water transfer with an intricate series of underground drainage tunnels, giving the City of Light its first real taste of modern living. Using an 81-mile-long aqueduct, he was able to deliver fresh water with enough pressure for multistory indoor plumbing. 

This meant clean water to drink and clean water to flush. By 1874, some 34,000 Parisian dwellings had running water.

The benefits for public health were profound. Clean drinking water became a standard amenity, instances of disease plummeted, and bathing increased. 

One of the most famous cities in the world became a model for a new kind of modern.

Belgrand’s sewer system, which would have been impossible without the Roman method of water delivery, was a spectacle of engineering and a testament to invention. Throughout the 1870s, upper-crust citizens entertained themselves with tours of the underground tunnels that eliminated their own waste and undoubtedly lengthened their lives.

Indeed, 150 years later, we should all give thanks for the ingenuity of the ancients and the Victorians. We wouldn’t be here without them.

Source material: Hart Davis, Adam, Engineers: From the Great Pyramids to the Pioneers of Space Travel (DK Publishing, 2012).


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