Tag Archives: filtration

#TDIWH—February 21, 1895: Aeration to Purify Sewage and a Letter from George Warren Fuller

Spray Aeration

Spray Aeration

February 21, 1895: Letter to Engineering News. Aeration as a Means of Purifying Sewage and Water. by J.H. Curtis. “The subject of sewage disposal and the purification of alluvial river water has been long considered and well digested by chemists, but the engineering end of the question has seemed to lag. About a year ago the subject was experimented on at St. Louis, and the result of these experiments may be given as follows:

Aeration was employed in which the liquid to be treated is absolutely disintegrated or reduced to spray. At the same instant of time and in juxtaposition with the liquid spray must be an atom of disintegrated air. What is the result? Organic matter accompanying the liquid is at once seized by the different constituents of the air, and there is produced pure water and harmless inorganic compounds. How performed? By a screen floor, say, with pepper-box perforations, over which is a layer of coarse river sand, somewhere below another layer of sand, leaving an air chamber between the two. Then, to duplicate nature, cause a rain storm of the liquid to be purified by forcing air into the chamber of a little less pressure than what is sufficient to sustain the weight of the liquid in the tank.

These drops falling on the fine sand, which must be kept unsubmerged, are then and there purified. [Mr. Curtis then goes on to quote the results from some experiments conducted at the Lawrence Experiment Station in Massachusetts. The experiments were run by none other than George Warren Fuller. The article continues…]

At the request of Mr. Curtis we have submitted proofs of his communication to Mr. Geo. W. Fuller, Biologist-in-Charge of the Lawrence Experiment Station of the Massachusetts State Board of Health. Mr. Fuller has made some comments on the subject, which are given immediately below. -Ed.)

Sir: The reference by Mr. Curtis to the Report of the Massachusetts State Board of Health on the purification of sewage by intermittent filtration, where artificial aeration is used for the removal of air in the filters, shows such a complete misapprehension of the process of purification by bacterial action, as well as misconception of the results of our work, that it is difficult to comment on the statements In his letter. He has entirely missed the idea of purification in the series of intermittent sewage filters Nos. 12A, 15B and 16B, which have been described in our Reports for 1892 and 1893.

It seems to me unnecessary to comment on his scheme until he has some facts to give with regard to this bacterial and organic purification of water and sewage by his system.

Truly yours,

George W. Fuller.

Commentary: There are very few letters written by George Warren Fuller that have survived to the present day. It is clear from this letter that he did not suffer fools gladly even at the tender age of 27 when the letter was written.

George Warren Fuller, 1903, 35 years old

George Warren Fuller, 1903, 35 years old

#TDIWH—January 31, 1941: Death of Charles V. Chapin

Charles V. Chapin

Charles V. Chapin

January 31, 1941: Charles V. Chapin dies. “Charles Value Chapin (January 17, 1856 – January 31, 1941 in Providence) was a pioneer in public-health practice, serving as one of the Health Officers for Providence, Rhode Island between 1884 and 1932. He also served as President of the American Public Health Association in 1927. His observations on the nature of the spread of infectious disease were dismissed at first, but eventually gained widespread support. His book, The Sources and Modes of Infection, was frequently read in the United States and Europe. The Providence City Hospital was renamed the Charles V. Chapin Hospital in 1931 to recognize his substantial contributions to improving the sanitary condition of the city of Providence.”

From a draft of The Chlorine Revolution: (McGuire 2013)

In the U.S., Charles V. Chapin was responsible more than any one person for instituting the progressive aspects of the public health movement, but he started his career when miasmas dominated beliefs in disease transmission. In a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1909, he recalled his early career and the incredible ideas that were believed at that time.

“The foul emanations from decomposing organic matter were sucked up from cellars by the warm air of the house and carried sickness and death…Air was the chief vehicle of infection, nay, it was infection itself. The emanations from cellars and untidy cupboards which dealt death and destruction through the house have been referred to, as well as the more specific effluvia which gave rise to yellow fever, consumption, and diphtheria.” (Chapin 1915)

In 1884, the appointment of Charles V. Chapin as Superintendent of Health for the City of Providence, Rhode Island was one of the milestones that can be noted in making boards of health more professional. Much has been written about his career, but it was his assumption of the duties of Superintendent of Health that defined his contribution to public health. He was trained as a physician but Chapin became instrumental in improving not only medical education but also the education of public health specialists. Chapin is one of the best examples of the new professionals who bridged the period from miasma to germ theory. He had been trained in the arts of fumigation and cleaning the streets to remove filth. He was obtaining his medical education just as the age of bacteriology was dawning. He had taken courses in the new bacteriology and had followed the publications of Robert Koch in Germany who had identified the tubercle bacillus and the bacillus comma that caused cholera. In addition, Chapin adopted and used Koch’s new laboratory technique called the plate method to quantify the number of bacteria present in a water supply.

Unlike many health officers who were confused by the seeming conflicts between the worlds of miasmas and germs, Chapin integrated the two and devised a new approach to public health protection. “He was one of a few in America before 1885 who followed the English sanitarian John Simon in pointing out that the danger from filth was not in the stench but in specific disease germs….For many good reasons, the cleansing of the city had to go on.” (Cassedy 1962)


Indeed, the story of the advances in public health during the 1890s and early 1900s could be nothing more than a recitation of Chapin’s biography. That task has already been brilliantly done by James H. Cassedy in his book about Charles V. Chapin. (Cassedy 1962)

“Chapin’s efforts to improve the sanitary environment of his city were valuable to sanitarians across the country. But he was impatient with much of this work. He had early realized that cleansing of the physical environment was, by itself, insufficient for improving the public health. Minimizing the broad dogmas of the filth theory from the first, and concentrating on the truly dangerous forms of filth, Chapin progressively deemphasized nuisances that had no direct or demonstrable connection with disease and avoided much of the tedious routine of nuisance abatement….Attuning himself to the age of bacteriology, he turned from general measures against disease to specific measures against particular diseases.”(Cassedy 1962)

Disinfection of households which held victims of infectious diseases was one of the lingering effects of the miasma theory. In 1902, Leal discussed the useful and ridiculous aspects of disinfection of a diseased household after the removal of the infected person.

“Disinfection, then, is the process of destroying such infection by the destruction of the disease germs there existing…Too often, however, it is intrusted (sic) to one whose training possibly has made capable of distinguishing a pile of filth or an unpleasant odor, but who as no true conception of the cause of the disease, how it is possible to destroy it, and the means to be employed. In such hands it is more a ceremony of incantation than a scientific process.” (emphasis added) (Leal 1902)

Ceremonies of incantation persisted for decades. Chapin lamented in a paper published in 1923 that cities were loath to give up what he called “terminal disinfection” which referred to the disinfection of surfaces or the atmosphere in a dwelling where a person has died from a contagious disease or had recovered from such a disease. He emphasized that by the time of his writing, everyone was pretty sure that contagious diseases were spread by people (and their emanations) and not things. Swabbing a house down with formaldehyde, burning sulfur or heating pans of chloride of lime provided impressive special effects, but were of little use to prevent transmission of epidemic diseases. (Chapin 1923)

Yet, cities felt compelled to continue the tradition because it was ingrained in the public psyche and the public expected it. Providence, Rhode Island stopped terminal disinfection for diphtheria cases in 1905 but it was not until 1908 that Chapin was able to stop terminal disinfection for scarlet fever cases. In 1913, New York City eliminated virtually all terminal disinfection and many other cities followed suit. (Chapin 1923) Part of the resistance to eliminating terminal disinfection was public relations, but a huge part of the problem was that there was a deeply ingrained belief that if someone was sick, they probably infected the air and the bad air had to be cleansed.

The work on mechanical filtration done in Providence, Rhode Island, over the period 1892 to 1894, seldom gets the credit it deserves for marking advances in the science of drinking water filtration. (Swarts 1895) After an epidemic of typhoid in Providence in 1888, Charles V. Chapin began to seriously investigate filtration for use on the City’s water supply. “This Providence experimentation provided the first careful tests anywhere of the mechanical type of water filtration.” (Cassedy 1962) In a paper published by Chapin, bacteria removals were typically 98.7 percent. Chapin recommended that mechanical filtration be installed on the source of supply for Providence. (Chapin 1895) However, the City Council was not ready for such a new technology. A slow sand filter was installed instead. (Cassedy 1962)

Commentary: I knew nothing about Charles V. Chapin when I started writing The Chlorine Revolution. After seeing his name pop up in many contexts dealing with the new public health movement, I read his autobiography. He was an extraordinary individual who did more than most to modernize public health efforts in the U.S.


Cassedy, James H., Charles V. Chapin and the Public Health Movement. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Chapin, Charles V. 1895. “The Filtration of Water.” The Medical News. 66 (January 5, 1895): 11-4.

Chapin, Charles V. 1915. “Truth in Publicity.” American Journal of Public Health. 5 (June 1915): 493-502, In Papers of Charles V. Chapin, M.D. Clarence L. Scamman ed., New York:Oxford, 1934, 13-9.

Chapin, Charles V. 1923. “Disinfection in American Cities.” The Medical Officer (London). 30 (November 17, 1923): 232-3, In Papers of Charles V. Chapin, M.D. Clarence L. Scamman ed., New York:Oxford, 1934, 92-5.

Leal, John L. 1902. “Facts vs. Fallacies of Sanitary Science,” Eleventh Biennial Report of the Board of Health of the State of Iowa for the Period Ending June 30, 1901. Des Moines:Iowa, 129-40, from The Christian Advocate. New York, August 21, 1902.

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

Swarts, Gardner T. 1895, “Discussion on the Foregoing Group of Papers From ‘The Cart Before the Horse’ to ‘The Report of the Committee on the Pollution of Water Supplies,’ Inclusive.” In American Public Health Association, Public Health Papers and Reports. Vol. 20, Columbus, OH:APHA, 83-4.

#TDIWH—January 20, 1916: Lowell, Mass. Filtration Plant and Watertown, NY Water Supply

0120 Lowell Filter PlantJanuary 20, 1916:  Municipal Journal article–New Filtration Plant Completed. “Lowell, Mass.-The city’s new $225,000 filtration plant is now in operation. The building is of concrete, with red tile roof, and is artistic in design. The filtration or purification plant is located on the north side of the boulevard, immediately opposite the lower pumping station. It consists of six coke prefilters, 10 feet in depth and two-fifths of an acre in total area; a settling basin, divided into two units, with a total capacity of 500,000 gallons; six sand filters, with a total area of one acre; and a filtered water reservoir of 1,000,000 gallons capacity. All of the operations involved are controlled in the building shown in the accompanying illustration, where are contained the main valves and recording apparatus. At the rate of 75 million gallons per acre per day through the prefilters. and a 10 million gallon rate through the sand filters the areas provided have a capacity of a 10-million gallon daily output. Allowing for cleaning and for the possible desirability of a lower rate through the coke, the plant is believed to be ample for an average daily supply of 7,500,000 to 8,500,000 gallons, or-if the past growth of the population holds in the future-sufficient for the needs of the city until 1935.”

0726 Allen HazenJanuary 20, 1916:  Municipal Journal article–Engineers’ Report on Water Supplies. “Watertown, N. Y.-The report of Hazen, Whipple & Fuller, the consulting engineers, who for several months past have been investigating available sources from which Watertown might secure its water supply has been presented to city officials. The report is an exhaustive one and is supplemented by maps of the available areas prepared under the direction of the engineers. Four possible sources aside from the one now used are considered in the report, and, while no recommendations are made, statistics of the cost of the works and cost of maintenance all of which are embodied in the report, show that the possible supply from the north branch of Sandy Creek is the most satisfactory and least expensive. The report shows that the proposed Pine Plains source would not furnish a sufficient supply of water from wells alone. While the city at the present time consumes approximately 6,000.000 gallons of water a day, the commissioners decided before the survey started that no supply would he considered satisfactory unless it would furnish at least 12.000,000 gallons per day. This would assure a supply that could be used without addition for many years to come.”

Reference: “Engineers’ Report on Water Supplies.” 1916. Municipal Journal. 40:3(January 20, 1916): 82-3.

#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.

January 7, 1914: First Transit of Panama Canal; 1832: Richmond Filter; 2011: Fluoride Exposure

SS Ancon first official transit of the Panama Canal in 1914.  The Alexandre La Valley was an old French crane boat that made the first unofficial transit on 1/7/1914.

SS Ancon first official transit of the Panama Canal in 1914. The Alexandre La Valley was an old French crane boat that made the first unofficial transit on 1/7/1914.

January 7, 1914:On January 7, 1914 the Alexandre La Valley became the first ship to make a complete transit of the Panama Canal. The Canal is about 50 miles long and uses a system of locks to transport ships through. The locks are 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. Between 13,000 and 14,000 vessels use the canal each year, accounting for about 5% of the world trade….The number of ships able to be processed through is limited by the space available. Larger ships are being built and the locks are limited by size. These forces combined are leading to the Panama Canal Expansion Project. Work began on a new set of locks in 2007 and is expected to be completed by 2014.”

Commentary: The water history connection is that the filling of the locks is accomplished by draining water from Gatun Lake that is fed by precipitation in the Panamanian rain forest. Over 26 million gallons of fresh water is lost to the ocean during each downward lock cycle. The new canal system of locks will recycle about 60 percent of the water so there will be less pressure on the local water resources. A terrific blog posted on October 21, 2012, entitled “Panama Canal Update : Why Water is still King” gave a lot of details on the water resources angle of the new canal. I recommend it.

0126 Moses N BakerJanuary 7, 1832: Completion of the first attempt to filter a public water supply in the U.S. Filtration was begun in Richmond, VA. The slow sand filters operated in an “upflow” mode and consisted of layers of sand and gravel. The design engineer was Albert Stein who built a downflow filter after the upflow version failed. Despite the problems, Moses N. Baker declared the Richmond filtration efforts the start of filtration of public water supplies in the U.S.

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, 125-9.

1202 USEPAJanuary 7, 2011: To prevent overexposure to fluoride, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced proposed changes in the recommended level of fluoride in drinking water. The HHS proposed recommendation of 0.7 parts per million (ppm) of fluoride in drinking water replaced the current recommended range of 0.7 to 1.2 ppm.

December 28, 1918: Minneapolis Filtration; 1918: Influenza Pandemic

Water filtration beds at the original filtration plant at Columbia Heights.

Water filtration beds at the original filtration plant at Columbia Heights.

December 28, 1918: Municipal Journal article—Water Filtration at Minneapolis. “The Minneapolis water filtration plant consists of a 7.5-million-gallon sedimentation basin, four coagulation basins, sixteen filter beds. and a 45-million-gallon covered clear-water reservoir. The water is treated with sulphate of alumina, thoroughly mixed and coagulated and allowed to settle, after which it is filtered by rapid sand filters. After filtration it is treated with chlorine gas. It is planned to provide a plant for softening the water which will involve the construction of appliances for softening, filtration and semi-direct pumping of the water….

Some interesting figures on the effect of the use of filtered water upon the health of the community are reported. For thirteen years prior to the filtration of the city supply (which went into service in 1913), the average death rate from typhoid fever per 100,000 population was 31. Since the city began using filtered water, the rate has been reduced to an average of 9, the rate for 1916 having been 5 per 100,000. The book value or cost of the filtration plant is given as $963,709.”

0201 Influenza1December 28, 1918: Municipal Journal article—To Investigate Cost of Influenza. “Harrisburg, Pa.-An investigation is to be conducted by the state department of health into the cost of the epidemic of influenza, which has taken 47,000 lives. Dr. B. Franklin Royer, acting state health commissioner, has announced that every phase of the social and economic cost of the disease will be surveyed. Doctor Royer has sent letters to men and women in charge of the work of fighting the epidemic in various parts of the state and asked that the information desired be returned at once to the department. ‘Professor J. P. Lichtenberger, of the Wharton School of Finance, of the University of Pennsylvania’ he said, ‘has been engaged by the department to undertake this work, and a large corps of clerks, stenographers and other officers of the state department of health have been designated to cooperate in gathering the data….’” Commentary: In the midst of a national construction push for more filtration plants, the U.S. was devastated by the influenza pandemic. It has been estimated that 500,000 to 675,000 people died in the U.S. alone and 20 to 50 million people worldwide.

Reference: “Water Filtration at Minneapolis.” Municipal Journal. 45:26(December 18, 1918): 502-4.

December 23, 1791: James Peacock’s Filter

1223 Peacock Filter Bottoms Like Wheeler BottomsDecember 23, 1791: James Peacock, a London architect of note in his day, was granted the first British patent on a process and apparatus for water filtration (December 23, 1791, No. 1,841). In 1793. Peacock published a promotion pamphlet setting forth the need for filtration and the principles that should guide the choice, preparation and placing of filtering media, showing sketches of filters of different sizes and design. It includes a diagram showing superimposed spheres of diminishing size, illustrating a mathematical exposition of the reasons why coarse filtering material should be placed at the bottom of a filter with layers of material of regularly decreasing size above it. Peacock’s exposition brings to mind the Wheeler filter bottom designed more than a century afterwards. No such thesis had appeared before Peacock’s day and none surpassing it has appeared since….

Peacock’s Design.-The novelty of Peacock’s invention, he declared in his patent, was filtration by ascent instead of the common method of descent. This could be applied under any head, in any quantity and for public as well as private use. A further novelty, far more significant, was cleaning the filter by reverse flow, the descending water carrying with it “all foul and extraneous substances.”

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, 67-72.

Commentary: Even though Peacock’s filter was a failure, it marked the beginning of period of experimentation which resulted in the successful slow sand filters that are still used today.1223 James Peacock