October 24, 1879: Birth of Vincent B. Nesfield; 1981: Melting Icebergs; 1632: Birth of van Leeuwenhoek

0124 VB NesfieldOctober 24, 1879: Birth of Vincent B. Nesfield. Nesfield was the first person to use chlorine gas under pressure to disinfect drinking water. In 1903, Lieutenant Vincent B. Nesfield of the British Indian Medical Services published a remarkable paper in a British public health journal. (Nesfield 1903) In the paper, he described his search for a chemical disinfectant to purify drinking water that would be suitable for use in the field as part of a military campaign.  He came up with the idea of producing chlorine gas by electrolytic cells and then compressing the gas with 6 atmospheres of pressure until it liquefied which facilitated its storage in lead-lined steel tanks that held about 20 pounds of liquid chlorine.  He treated 50 gallon batches of water by submerging the gas valve of the chlorine cylinder and opening it slightly to bubble the chlorine gas into the water.

In a later paper, Nesfield stated that about 5.4 mg/L of chlorine (2 grams per 100 gallons) killed all typhoid and cholera bacteria.  After a 5-minute contact time, he added sodium sulphite to the treated water to remove the excess chlorine and prevent taste problems. (Nesfield 1905) To say that he was ahead of his time is a vast understatement.  It would be 7 years before liquid chlorine in pressurized cylinders was widely available in the U.S. for water utilities to use as an alternative to chloride of lime.

Passing references to Nesfield’s unique treatment method can be found in some publications in the early 20th century.  In a discussion of two papers on chlorination of water and sewage in 1911, Dr. L.P. Kinnicutt mentioned Nesfield’s liquid chlorine addition method and went on to describe an iodine tablet developed by Nesfield that was more portable (and undoubtedly caused more taste problems).  Therefore, there was at least some early knowledge in the U.S. of the use of liquid chlorine to disinfect drinking water.  There was one mention of Nesfield’s system of purification in a 1920 encyclopedia section on water supply. (Hill 1920) A note in a journal devoted to tropical medicine in 1907, described how successful chlorination was for a unit of the British colonial army marching toward Agra. (Pure Water 1907)

There was limited mention of Nesfield and his groundbreaking work on chlorine disinfection in histories of drinking water disinfection.  In Race’s remarkable 1918 book on chlorination of water, he gave Nesfield credit for the first use of liquefied chlorine for the disinfection of water. (Race 1918) Baker devoted a few sentences to Nesfield’s contributions. (Baker 1981) In a later summary of the progress of drinking water disinfection in 1950, Race again gave credit for Nesfield’s unique application of chlorine technology. (Race 1950)


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.

Hill, Henry W. 1920. “Water Supply: For Municipal, Domestic and Potable Purposes, Including Its Sources, Conservation, Purification and Distribution.” In The Encyclopedia Americana, 39–65.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1903. “A Chemical Method of Sterilizing Water Without Affecting its Potability.” Public Health. 15(7): 601–3.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1905. “A Simple Chemical Process of Sterilizing Water for Drinking Purposes for Use in the Field and at Home.” The Journal of Preventive Medicine. 8: 623-32.

“Pure Water.” 1907. Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 10(January 15): 30.

Race, Joseph. 1918. Chlorination of Water. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons.

Race, Joseph. 1950. “Forty Years of Chlorination: 1910–1949.” Journal Institution of Water Engineers. 4: 479–505.

1024 Melting IcebergsOctober 24, 1981 New York Times–Producing Fresh Water By Melting Icebergs. “Icebergs can be melted in such a way as to produce fresh water and mechanical energy. The proposed operation is described in a patent awarded this week to three employees of the Department of Agriculture Research Center, Berkeley, Calif.

The procedure, as outlined by Wayne M. Camirand, John M. Randall and Earl Hautala in patent 4,295,333, starts with evaporating warm surface water by pumping it into a vacuum. The vapor produces electrical energy by operating a turbine. The vapor is then condensed by cold water from the iceberg, and the mixture is used to melt the iceberg itself. The added moisture from the vapor creates a volume of fresh water larger than that produced by melting the iceberg alone.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Randall said that although the iceberg procedure had not yet been followed, much interest had been shown in towing icebergs from Antarctica, and several small ocean thermal energy conversion plants had been built and operated experimentally.”

Commentary: I am taking bets on whether or not this patent was ever commercialized. Had they known, all the three gents had to do is wait 30 years for climate change to melt icebergs for them. Is this where the phrase “patently absurd” comes from?

1024 Antonie van LeeuwenhoekOctober 24, 1632:  Birthday of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. Throughout the history of scientific improvement, the development of the tools for scientists helped incremental increases in knowledge as well as allowing them to break new barriers and make discoveries that would otherwise not have been possible.  Such is the case for the invention of and improvement to the microscope.

Lenses that magnified things were around for hundreds of years.  Others had assembled multiple lenses in tubes and created the compound microscope.  But it was not until the 17th century that a big leap was made. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was born in 1632 in Delft of what is now called the Netherlands.  In the same year, Galileo published his famous work Dialogue in which he argued that Copernicus was right—the sun was the center of our solar system.  To put it mildly, science was in its infancy.  The Catholic Church rewarded Galileo for his insight by declaring him heretic and holding him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

There are many descriptions of van Leeuwenhoek’s life but the most entertaining is the lyrical narrative by Paul de Kruif in his classic book Microbe Hunters.  De Kruif described van Leeuwenhoek as a janitor and shopkeeper, and, indeed, he was.  However, van Leeuwenhoek was also obsessed with grinding lenses, making better microscopes and viewing the, as yet, unviewed microbial world.

While looking around his house for common items to study with his inventions, he decided to look at drops of water and discovered that there were “beasties” swimming around.  After a significant amount of time, which he used to perfect his tool and hone his descriptions of the microbial world, van Leeuwenhoek began corresponding with the Royal Society in London.  Despite initial skepticism, the Royal Society elected him to their august body.  Van Leeuwenhoek did not share well with others and preferred to keep his improvements to the microscope to himself.  He did share his many discoveries in hundreds of letters to the Royal Society including many descriptions of bacteria.  He was the first person to make these observations.

After van Leeuwenhoek, others improved the microscope including Joseph Lister’s father, Joseph Jackson Lister.  In 1832, the elder Lister was able, through manipulation of the lenses in the tube, to eliminate the “chromatic effect” or light halos around the object being observed. Thus, a relatively sophisticated tool was available for Pasteur to view his yeasts, bacteria and other microbes.


De Kruif, Paul. Microbe Hunters. New York:Harcourt, 1996.

Godlee, Rickman J. Lord Lister. Second edition, London:MacMillan, 1918.

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