#TDIWH—January 14, 1829: First Slow Sand Filter in England

0114 First Slow Sand FilterJanuary 14, 1829: The first slow sand filter in England was put into operation by James Simpson. “Best known of all the filtration pioneers is James Simpson. He was born July 25, 1799, at the official residence of his father, who was Inspector General (engineer) of the Chelsea Water Works Co. The house was on the north bank of the Thames, near the pumping station and near what was to become the site of the filter that was copied the world over. At the early age of 24, James Simpson was appointed Inspector (engineer) of the water company at a salary of £300 a year, after having acted in that capacity for a year and a half during the illness of his father. At 26, he was elected to the recently created Institution of Civil Engineers. At 28, he made his 2,000-mile inspection trip to Manchester, Glasgow and other towns in the North, after designing the model for a working-scale filter to be executed in his absence. On January 14, 1829, when Simpson was in his thirtieth year, the one-acre filter at Chelsea commonly known as the first English slow sand filter, was put into operation….

Skepticism as to the wholesomeness of filtered water in 1828 and Simpson’s reassurances on the subject are amusing today. At the hearing before the Royal Commission a member asked whether any persons had been in the habit of drinking the water filtered on a small scale. ‘Yes,’ answered Simpson. Had they complained of the water ‘being insalubrious, giving them cholic or any other complaints?’ To this, the engineer replied that none of the more than 100 men working on the ground (presumably on the permanent filter) had complained of the filtered water…Fish, the commission was assured, did not die in the filtered water. Simpson willingly admitted that ‘water may contain so many ingredients chemically dissolved, that filtration will not purify it.’ Asked whether the discharge from King’s Scholars Sewer could be ‘so filtered as to be fit to drink,’ Simpson cannily said he had never tried it. Asked whether filtration would remove bad taste from water, Simpson replied that ‘Thames water has a taste according to season, of animal and vegetable matter’; filtration ‘seems to deprive it of the whole of that, and we cannot discover it after it has passed the bed.’”

Commentary: It is a good thing that fish did not die in the filtered water. That would have been the end of the sanitary engineering profession.

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, 99, 109.

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