Monthly Archives: May 2014

May 31, 1889: The Johnstown Flood

0531 Johnstown FloodMay 31, 1889:  “The Johnstown Flood (or Great Flood of 1889 as it became known locally) occurred on May 31, 1889. It was the result of the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam situated 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, USA, made worse by several days of extremely heavy rainfall. The dam’s failure unleashed a torrent of 20 million tons of water (4.8 billion U.S. gallons; 18.2 million cubic meters; 18.2 billion litres)….The flood killed 2,209 people and caused $17 million of damage….It was the first major disaster relief effort handled by the new American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton. Support for victims came from all over the United States and 18 foreign countries. After the flood, victims suffered a series of legal defeats in their attempt to recover damages from the dam’s owners. Public indignation at that failure prompted the development in American law changing a fault-based regime to strict liability.”

May 30, 1923: Death of Rudolph Hering; 1912: Typhoid Fever Kills Wilbur Wright

Rudolph Hering

Rudolph Hering

May 30, 1923: Death of Rudolph Hering. “Although Dr. Hering was one of the first to recommend mechanical filters for pumping the water supplies at Atlanta, and elsewhere, and was connected with important water supply investigations at New York, Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans, Columbus, Montreal, Minneapolis and numerous smaller places, his accomplishments were greatest in the field of sewerage and sewage disposal and led to his having been designated years ago as the ‘Dean of Sanitary Engineering” in this country. Recognition of such standing was perhaps first made by President Harrison, who, in 1889, appointed him Chairman of a Commission to prepare a program for sewerage improvements for Washington, D. C.

Dr. Hering was an active worker on the committees of various professional organizations as well as civic movements. His most important work was undoubtedly that for the American Public Health Association in the matter of the collection and disposal of refuse. He gathered statistics as to results of operation and otherwise elucidated practice in this country and Europe. Some twenty-five years ago he gave liberally of his own time and money for gathering information upon this subject, although his activities in the field of water supply and sewerage did not permit him to publish the results of his investigations in the disposal of solid wastes of the municipalities.

Dr. Hering was in partnership with George W. Fuller, M. Am. Soc. C. E., from 1901 to 1911 and with John H. Gregory, M. Am. Soc. C. E., from 1911 to 1915. After the latter date his activities were confined largely to work upon a book on ‘Collection and Disposal of Refuse’ of which he was a joint author with Samuel A. Greeley, M. Am. Soc. C. E….

He received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1907, and an honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering from the Polytechnic Institute at Dresden in 1922. He was a member of a large number of engineering societies both in this country and in Europe. He was an honorary member of the New England Water Works Association and of the American Water Works Association and a Past President of the American Public Health Association. He became a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1876, was Director in 1891, 1897 to 1899, and Vice President in 1900 to 1901.”

Reference: “Rudolph Hering.” 1924. Journal AWWA. 11:1(January): 305.

0530 Wilbur WrightMay 30, 1912: Wilbur Wright dies of typhoid fever.

The year 1908 signaled the beginning of drinking water disinfection in the U.S. A lot of important things happened in that year and later. Jim Rasenberger in his book, America 1908, chronicled the technological, exploration, political and sociological milestones in the U.S. during 1908. On the first page of his book, he stated succinctly the thrills attendant to the year, “…1908, by whatever quirk of history or cosmology, was one hell of a ride around the sun.” During these 366 days, the Wright brothers amazed the world with extended flights of heavier-than-air machines, the Model T went into production, two explorers reached for the North Pole, a 20,000 mile race in automobiles from New York to Paris was started and completed, a new President was elected, the national pastime captured the attention of the country in a strange pennant race, the Great White fleet started its round-the-world cruise and deadly race riots and other violence scarred the national conscience.

The capstone to 1908 was a two-hour and twenty minute flight by Wilbur Wright on December 31 in a suburb of Paris, which shattered all previous records for continuous flight. For manned flight, this was truly a major year. “In tracing the development of aeronautics, the historian of the future will point to the year 1908 as that in which the problem of mechanical flight was first mastered…”

To put the achievements of the Wright brothers in the context of their time and the history of application of scientific principles, part of Wilbur’s obituary summed up their accomplishments.

“The death of Wilbur Wright has brought intense personal sorrow to all who were in any way associated with him…The science of aviation has lost its greatest student, and in time to come the name of Wilbur Wright will be recorded in the annals of invention with the names of such pioneers as Robert Fulton, Stephenson (first steam locomotive engine), Bell, and others who have given to the world the value of practical experiments and successful achievements.” (emphasis added)

Thus, Wilbur Wright was not the first person to gaze at a bird and wonder how humans could fly. Nor was he the first person to build an airplane and try to lift off the ground. He and his brother, Orville, were the first to actually accomplish powered flight, but, more importantly, they demonstrated in a practical manner how to control that flight. Once again, technological progress is made by those who make an idea work.   An original idea without practical implementation is just a waste of oxygen feeding the brain.

Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever on May 30, 1912. He was just 45 years old. Four years earlier, he had astonished the world with his extended flights near Paris. What might he have achieved in continued partnership with his brother, Orville, had he not been struck down so early? The disinfection revolution did not spread fast enough to save the life of this inventor and world-renowned figure. But chlorination did travel fast enough and far enough to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of future inventors, engineers and scientists who transformed the U.S. and the world with their creativity.

What does the author of America 1908 make of the disinfection revolution that occurred during this seminal year a few miles from the center of his story, New York City? Not surprisingly, no mention is made of the events that occurred at Boonton Reservoir. Only passing mention is made of public health and water supply with millions dying from infectious diseases, a cholera epidemic in Manila when the Great White Fleet visited and the construction of a new water supply by Mulholland for Los Angeles. The cause of Wright’s typhoid fever has been described as coming from various sources. Wilbur’s obituary mentioned bad fish in a Boston restaurant, but the author of the obituary had no particular reason for believing that was the source.   The only thing that appears to be certain is that he contracted the disease on a business trip back East (that is, east of Dayton, Ohio).

As noted in the previous chapter, chlorination had been instituted in hundreds of U.S. cities by 1912 but the typhoid death rate was still high. Boston had a typhoid fever death rate of 8 per 100,000 in 1912. In the same year, Washington, DC and Baltimore had typhoid death rates of 22 and 24 per 100,000.   Wilbur Wright more likely died from contaminated water rather than bad fish.

Reference: McGuire, Michael J. 2013. The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, CO:American Water Works Association.

May 29, 1953: Death of Earle B. Phelps

0529 Earle B PhelpsMay 29, 1953: Death of Earle B. Phelps. “Earle Bernard Phelps (1876–1953) was a chemist, bacteriologist and sanitary expert who served in governmental positions and as an academic in some of the leading universities in the U.S. He is known for his contributions in sewage disinfection, water chlorination, sewage treatment, milk pasteurization, shellfish control, and for describing the “oxygen sag curve” in surface water bodies….

After graduating from MIT and until 1903, Phelps worked as an assistant bacteriologist at the famous Lawrence Experiment Station in Lawrence, Massachusetts. From 1903 until 1911, he was a chemist/microbiologist with the Sanitary Research Laboratory at MIT. He also taught at MIT during this period as an assistant professor of chemistry and biology. Early in his career, he investigated a typhoid fever epidemic at the State Hospital in Trenton, New Jersey. During this same period, he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey as an assistant hydrographer. In part, he worked on the purification of industrial wastes and he began his investigations on stream pollution with that agency. In 1910 to 1911 he conducted groundbreaking research with Colonel William M. Black of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the pollution of New York Harbor. This work established for the first time the concept of using dissolved oxygen concentrations in the water as a measure of water quality in the harbor.

In 1913, he left MIT and became the head of the Chemistry Division at the U.S. Hygienic Laboratory in Washington, DC., which was part of the U.S. Public Health Service. Phelps worked with H. W. Streeter who was a sanitary engineer with the Public Health service on the characterization of oxygen depletion in a stream receiving organic wastes. The Streeter-Phelps equation was the first quantitative model that was used to determine the impact of biochemical oxygen demand discharges to surface water bodies. Their equation led to deterministic modeling which made it possible to limit specific discharges from waste treatment plants.

In 1919, Phelps left the Hygienic Laboratory to accept an academic position at Stanford University. Later, he also taught at Columbia University from 1925 until 1943. From 1944 until his death in 1953 he was a professor of sanitary science at the University of Florida at Gainesville. He has been described as a gifted teacher who generously shared his knowledge with his associates and students.

Phelps had a long and distinguished career as a consulting sanitary expert. He worked for many cities helping them resolve problems with water treatment and sewage disposal. From 1907 to 1909, he was a consulting expert for the New Jersey Sewerage Commission. He visited all of the sewage disposal plants in the state and made annual reports on the results of his inspections. He also was retained by the Sewerage Commission of Baltimore, Maryland as a consulting expert in relation to experiments with sewage disposal. Phelps supervised the design and construction of a large number of sewage purification plants including those at Toronto, Canada, Tarrytown, New York, Rahway, New Jersey and Torrington, Connecticut.”

Commentary: This article is taken from the Wikipedia entry that I wrote for Phelps. I knew him from his participation as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the second Jersey City trial that I described in The Chlorine Revolution. He was incredibly accomplished and contributed to many of the water specialties that we engage in today.

May 28, 1914: Chlorination at the Torresdale Treatment Plant

0528 Torresdale Cl2May 28, 1914:  Municipal Journal article. Disinfecting Philadelphia’s Water Supply. By Francis D. West. “Bleach was first used at Torresdale [now called the Samuel S. Baxter treatment plant] in the form of hypochlorite of soda, produced electrolytically, during September, 1909. Two cells manufactured by the National Laundry Co. were used. A current of 35 amperes at 110 volts was used to decompose a brine solution. The chlorine and soda were allowed to recombine and the temperature was so high (about 110° F) that chlorates were formed. The bleach was applied directly in front of the first valve of one of the preliminary filters operated at a 20 mgd rate, or about 1/4 normal.

The conclusions were in part that the bacterial efficiency of the filter was considerably less than that of filters operated at four times the rate without treatment.

Hypochlorite was again used in December 1910. Due to the fact that the bacterial efficiency of slow sand filters decreases considerably in cold weather and the fecal organism B. coli communis was present in the filtered water, it was decided to use chloride of lime to disinfect the water in the filtered water basin. Treatment was continued until April 1911, when it was stopped; was again started December 1911, and was continued without interruption until February, 1913.

Liquid chlorine was first used Nov. 26, 1913, in conjunction with chloride of lime about 90 lbs. of liquid and 800 lbs. of powder being used daily until Feb. 9, when the use of chloride of lime was stopped.

May 27, 1755: First Municipal Water Pumping Plant

0527 Bethlehem pumping plantMay 27, 1755:  Hans Christopher Christiansen installed the first municipal water pumping plant in America at Bethlehem, PA; city supplied from a 70 foot high tank that was filled with water pumped from a spring through wooden pipes.

Reference:  “Business History.” Website

May 26, 1928: Birth of Marion Stoddart

0526 Marion StoddartMay 26, 1928:  Birth of Marion Stoddart.
Environmental Pioneer and Activist
in Massachusetts.
”During the 1960s, the Nashua River made the top 10 list of most polluted rivers in the U.S. Then Marion Stoddart got involved, building a citizen coalition that changed laws, attitudes, and restored the river. In the process, Marion won the United Nations Global 500 Award, was profiled in National Geographic, and had a widely-read children’s book written about her.” Go to this website for more information:

May 25, 1907: Birth of Rachel Carson; 1806: Filtration in Scotland

0927 Rachel-CarsonMay 25, 1907:  Birth of Rachel Carson. “Biologist and author of Silent Spring, The Sea Wind and other non-fiction work intended to improve the public understanding of science, Carson became a leading figure in the environmental movement before her death in 1964.”

Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) was an American marine biologist and conservationist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement.

Carson began her career as an aquatic biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries,[2] and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. Her widely praised 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us won her a U.S. National Book Award,[3] recognition as a gifted writer, and financial security. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, and the reissued version of her first book, Under the Sea Wind, were also bestsellers. This sea trilogy explores the whole of ocean life from the shores to the depths.

Late in the 1950s, Carson turned her attention to conservation, especially environmental problems that she believed were caused by synthetic pesticides. The result was Silent Spring (1962), which brought environmental concerns to an unprecedented share of the American people. Although Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides, and it inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter.”

May 25, 1806:  Letter from Thomas Telford discussing design of the filtration works at Glasgow, Scotland.  Glasgow was the third city in the world to receive filtered water (after Paisley, Scotland and Paris).  Delivery of water by pipes to customers began in 1807.

Reference:  Baker, Moses N. 1981. The Quest for Pure Water: the History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century. 2nd Edition. Vol. 1. Denver, Co.: American Water Works Association, 80-1.