December 13, 1899: Julius W. Adams dies. Julius Walker Adams was a noted civil engineer who planned the sewer system for Brooklyn, New York. He was also one of the first engineers who conceived the idea of building the Brooklyn Bridge. For several years he was Consulting Engineer of the Board of City Works, Brooklyn, and also consulted on the distribution of water in New York City. He found time to edit Engineering Newsand was President of the American Society of Civil Engineers from 1874-5. Adams was the last surviving member of the twelve founders of ASCE. He was a member of the New York Academy of Science and of the Association for the Advancement of Science.
November 13, 565 AD: End of the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, builder of the Basilica Cistern. “The Basilica Cistern (Turkish: Yerebatan Sarayı – Sunken Palace, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı – Sunken Cistern), is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), Turkey. The cistern, located 500 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophiaon the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 453 by 212 feet – about 105,000 square feet in area – capable of holding 2,800,000 cubic feet [or 21 million gallons] of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 30 feet high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 16 feet apart. The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style with no engravings.” (edited by MJM)
Istanbul has always had limited water resources. Water supplies had to be transported to the city through long canals and aqueducts. Istanbul has also been the target of invading armies and has had to rely on stored water during long sieges. For these reasons, underground and open-air cisterns have always been a part of the city fabric. Sometimes stored water in local cisterns had to last the city’s population for months. There is no official count of the number of cisterns that had been built in ancient times, but dozens have survived and many can be visited. The Basilica Cisternis the grandest of them all.
Commentary and Update: The Basilica Cistern is one of the locations for the movie “Inferno” starring Tom Hanks and released October 28, 2016. Somehow they create destructive waves in this underground water reservoir.
November 13, 1988: New York Times headline—Sewage in Santa Monica Bay. “Nearly seven miles of beaches are closed for the weekend because a cap on a sewer main 15 miles inland failed, causing a gush of raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay. The overflow, which apparently began Wednesday, caused bacteria levels in the ocean near Marina del Rey to rise to more than twice the safe levels for swimming, a city biologist, John Dorsey, said Friday.”
November 13, 2003: New York Times headline—Appreciations, Death of a Sewer Worker. “New York is a mythic place, and one of the most mythic parts of it is the part that nobody ever sees: the sewers. Alligators and giant rats barely begin to sum up the state of our fears about the sewers, when we acknowledge those fears at all. So it’s worth remembering how great a joke it is that the New York city sewers should also contain Ed Norton, played on ”The Honeymooners” by Art Carney, who died on Sunday at 85.”
October 25, 1949: Patent issued on Ductile Iron pipe. On this day, patent Number 2,485,761 was issued to Mr. K. D. Millis and others of the International Nickel Company, for “Gray Cast Iron having Improved Properties.” It has since become known as ductile iron. Gray iron becomes ductile iron through the inoculation of the molten mix with magnesium, changing the graphitic carbon from random flake forms into a more geometrically arrayed and spherical form. The new matrix provides greater yield strength, ultimate strength, and elongation properties.
Cast iron pipe producers had raced International Nickel to the patent office, but International Nickel got there first. Cast iron pipe producers soon began the commercial production of ductile iron pipe, which has supplanted cast iron due to its greater strength and toughness. Cast iron and ductile iron pipes form the backbone of America’s drinking water distribution systems.
Source: Maury D. Gaston, American Cast Iron Pipe Company.
October 25, 1848: First delivery of water from Lake Cochituate into Boston. “Lake Cochituate was created by the construction of Lake Cochituate Damto provide a reservoir for water supply to the City of Boston, via the 14-mile Cochituate Aqueduct. Lake Cochituate was the first major water supply system built for the city, and replaced the previous usage of Jamaica Pond. Developed from 1848 to 1863, it supplied Boston’s water until 1951, when the larger Wachusett and Quabbin Reservoirs replaced it. The surveys and plans for the project were performed by American civil engineer James Fowle Baldwin (1782–1862), the son of Loammi Baldwin who designed the Middlesex Canal, and younger brother of Loammi Baldwin, Jr. (1780–1838) who authored the earlier studies for a Boston water supply. The dam, located on the lake’s former northwestern outlet, formed the headworks of the water supply system, and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
October 25, 1882– San Antonio (California) Water Company, Mutual Water Company, incorporated;natural waters of area part of ‘The Cucamonga Rancho’, 1839 land grant, portion of original territory granted to San Gabriel Mission; statement of purpose: “Acquiring by appropriation, purchase, or otherwise, water, water rights, water privileges and right of way in the Counties of Los Angeles and San Bernardino and to furnish, lease or sell the same for irrigation, milling, manufacturing and other purposes. To own, hold, construct and maintain canals, ditches and all structures, lands, easements and rights appertaining thereto for the purpose of taking and conveying water as herein mentioned to owners of lots and blocks in the Village of Ontario and to stockholders in this Corporation and none others. To make improvements, borrow money and transact any and all business and things connected with the business of the Corporation and relating thereto”; development of water rights, delivery services initiated as migration of people resulted in development of agriculture, business, residency; 1890s– irrigation by Zanjeros (ditch walkers; derived from Spanish words “zanja”, meaning “deep ditch or irrigation ditch”, and “zanjon”, which means, “ditch rider or overseer”; employees who constructed acequias (canals) to provide controlled, dependable water supply to farmers; gave way to automated systems.
October 25, 1987: New York Times headline–The Worlds Beneath Paris. “The great historian of the Paris sewers was, of course, Victor Hugo, who not only has his hero Jean Valjean escape the authorities through the sewers, carrying the wounded Marius Pontmercy on his back, but who also devotes six chapters of ‘Les Miserables’ to a history of the sewers and their peculiarities and dangers. Paris, Hugo wrote, ‘has another Paris under herself: a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossroads, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation . . . .’
By the time he wrote these words (the book was published in 1862) the city’s ancient sewer system had been considerably modernized. It has been continuously and ingeniously improved since then so that today a 1,305-mile network of canals – one so extensive that if straightened it would reach to Istanbul – carries off, treats and returns to the Seine the city’s daily discharge within the span of a single day. If in a sunny street you have ever paused to wonder at the primitive-seeming phenomenon of Parisian street-cleaning, the gurgling gutter waters directed this way and that by bundles of rags, down here you learn just how sophisticated waste disposal really is.
The tour begins with the smell, which no amount of cleansing can quite eradicate. But once into the small, well-done Musee des Egouts you quickly forget it. Here in documents, engravings, photos, diagrams and models of machinery is a short course in the evolution of the sewer system from the time when chamberpots were dumped into the streets to the present gravity-flow system whose complex network is shown in a map.”
Commentary: I have crawled through my share of sanitary sewers and there is no way that any museum will ever help me forget the smell.
August 9, 1911: Municipal Journalarticle. Building a Large Vitrified Clay Pipe Sewer. “A piece of sewer construction is nearing completion in Brooklyn, N. Y., which is remarkable, both for the fact that it is believed to be the largest vitrified pipe sewer ever built, and also it is being laid with comparative ease in fine sand 10 feet to 15 feet below tide water level. This sewer, which is about 4,000 feet long, serves as the outlet line for a system draining a considerable area of a new part of the city which is rapidly extending out over the meadows adjacent to Jamaica Bay. It ends at a sewage disposal plant which has been in service for about 18 years and is enormously overtaxed and must speedily be replaced with some larger and probably different kind of plant.
The sewer is being laid through salt meadows, a considerable part of which is overflowed by the highest tides, and at few if any points is the land more than 3 feet higher than this. The depth of the trench ranges from 12 to 16 feet, or about 10 to 13 feet below high tide…. The sewer is made of 42-inch vitrified clay pipe 3 inches thick, bedded in concrete up to the horizontal diameter, this concrete having vertical outer sides and resting upon a plank platform, and being 7 inches thick under the invert and 14 inches wider than the outside diameter of the pipe barrel. For the purpose of connecting future buildings there are inserted at intervals of 20 feet upright “standpipes” of 6-inch vitrified pipe which rest on the 42-inch pipe in sockets formed around openings in the top of the pipe constructed for this purpose.”
July 6, 1917: “Clay pipe has a history that goes back millennia, with the earliest known example coming from Babylonia in 4,000 BC, according to sewerhistory.org….The clay sewer pipe industry in the United States dates back to 1815 with installations in Washington, D.C. In 1849, the first domestic clay pipe manufacturing facility was established in Middlebury, Ohio. In the years that followed, cities across the country began laying pipe systems to convey sewage away from populated areas….Around the turn of the 20th century, it was recognized that sewer pipe standards were needed; size, strength, quality and installation methods varied widely from location to location. As a result, an ASTM Committee was formed for clay sewer pipes. Eventually, this led to the publication of Standard C13 on the Manufacture of Clay Pipe in 1917 (which is now incorporated into ASTM C700).
That same year, the Clay Products Association was formed with the merger of the International Clay Products Bureau and the Society of Vitrified Clay Pipe Manufacturers. That organization – now known as the National Clay Pipe Institute – is celebrating its 100th anniversary amidst a resurgence of vitrified clay as a preferred gravity sanitary sewer pipe.”
July 6, 1890: Death of Edwin Chadwick. Edwin Chadwick was an English social reformer who was noted for his work to reform the Poor Laws and improve sanitary conditions and public health.The appointment of the Poor Law Commission in 1834 which included Edwin Chadwick is widely believed to be the beginning of the sanitary movement in England. Through Chadwick’s work and influence, more sophisticated health statistics were collected which revealed that public health problems were increasing at a rapid rate. Chadwick imposed his “sanitary idea” which focused on disease prevention. A survey published by the Poor Law Commission in 1842 detailed the horrific working and living conditions in England at the time. The report linked epidemic disease, especially related to fever diseases (typhoid, typhus and cholera) to filthy environmental conditions. Privy vaults, shallow urban wells and piles of garbage and animal excrement in the streets were all related to the increases in disease.
“‘The great preventatives,’” he wrote, “‘drainage, street and house cleansing by means of supplies of water and improved sewerage, and especially the introduction of cheaper and more efficient modes of removing all noxious reuse from the towns, are operations for which aid must be sought from the science of the Civil Engineer, not from the physician, who has done his work when he has pointed out the disease that results from the neglect of proper administrative measures, and has alleviated the sufferings of the victims.’” (Rosen 1993)
Of course, the best way to identify and locate these health threats was to determine where the greatest odors of putrefaction were located and tie the solution to the problem—miasmas.
Chadwick was not ultimately successful in all he tried to do to clean up the noxious wastes in London and other concentrations of population in England. However, he did have a profound influence on a series of laws that were passed in the mid to late 1800s which began to implement some of his vision. (Rosen 1993) The formation of boards of health and the appointment of health officers under these laws provided advocates for cleaning up the filth.
It is a common misconception among chroniclers of the time period, 1850 to 1900, that the act of installing sewers, in and of itself, was an effective public health protection strategy. Edwin Chadwick was one of the major proponents of this misconception. In the 1840s he became one of the leaders of the European Sanitary Movement. In his famous report published in 1842, Chadwick promoted four themes:
- Relationship of unsanitary living conditions and disease (based on the miasma theory)
- Economic effects of poor living conditions
- Social effects of poor living conditions (e.g., drunkenness, immorality, disease)
- Need for new administrative systems to effect changes (Halliday 2001)
Chadwick had a vision of vast sewer systems collecting human waste and transporting it out to rural areas where it would be put to beneficial use as fertilizer for farms. Water supply would be provided to cities through a piped water system from protected sources that were not affected by any locale’s sewage. Unfortunately, only one out of three parts of Chadwick’s vision were implemented in London and elsewhere. Sewers were built but the crucial sanitary disposal of human waste on farmland was not. Sewage was discharged into rivers and lakes after which time no surface supplied drinking water was safe.
Halliday, Stephen. 2001. The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. London, U.K.: History Press.
McGuire, Michael J. 2013. The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, CO:American Water Works Association.
Rosen, George. 1993. A History of Public Health. Expanded Edition, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University.
June 23, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineerarticle. Sewer Work in Louisville. “The city of Louisville, Ky., is now doing a large amount of sewer main construction. For nearly eighteen years prior to the beginning of the present work practically nothing had been done in sewer work and Louisville, which is a large and growing city, was lamentably weak in sanitation. After considerable agitation the city, in 1906, was authorized to issue $4,000,000 worth of bonds for constructing additions to the existing systems and building new ones.
A sewer commission was appointed by the Mayor, consisting of P. L . Atherton, chairman ; Oscar Finley, W. C. Nones and Alfred Seligman. This commission employed Mr. Harrison P. Eddy, of Boston, as consulting engineer, and Mr. J. B. F. Breed, former city engineer, became chief engineer of the Sewer Commission. Mr. J. H. Kimball, formerly assistant city engineer, of Newton, Mass., was secured as designing engineer, and Messrs. F. C. Williams, H. S. Morse and H. P. Wires as resident engineers in charge of construction work.
A large amount of preliminary work was necessary, including surveys and borings. These borings were numerous and covered the lines so thoroughly that the conditions to be met with in excavation were very accurately known. It was found best to use an auger for this purpose. As was found by the borings and later confirmed in the actual excavation, the top layer of earth for about 10 feet was of a clayey nature. Below this as deep as excavations were to be carried the material was a mixture of sand and gravel, the relative proportions of which varied from place to place. These materials made the handling of the material very easy, but great care has been necessary to properly brace the banks as the gravel has little power of cohesion to hold itself in place.”
June 16, 1858: Death of Dr. John Snow. Dr. John Snow (March 15, 1813–June 16, 1858) is famous for the Broad Street Pump episode but he accomplished so much more than that. He was first and foremost a physician who trained in England in the early part of the 19th century. He made significant contributions to the development of anesthesia and he is considered by many to be the Father of Modern Epidemiology.
The story of Dr. John Snow and how he discovered the cause of a cholera epidemic in the Golden Square neighborhood of London in 1854 has reached almost mythical proportions in public health literature. Three excellent books describe Snow’s life and the details of the Broad Street Pump incident. (Hempel 2007; Johnson 2006; Vinten-Johansen et al. 2003)
Snow was born on March 15, 1813 in the City of York. He served his medical-apothecary apprenticeship in Newcastle-on-Tyne with later assistantships in the villages of Burnop Field and Pateley Bridge. In 1836 at the age of 23, Snow moved to London to complete his medical education. He qualified as a licensed apothecary in 1838 and a surgeon with a London practice in October 1838. With an office in the parish of Saint Anne-Soho, Snow would have a medical career of only two-dozen years before he was struck down at the age of 45.
At the age of 17, Snow became a vegetarian and soon thereafter committed to only drinking boiled water or, preferably, distilled water as a result of the writings of John Frank Newton. He embraced abstinence from alcohol around 1836. Snow was known to be quiet, frugal and energetic, a man of integrity and a surgeon with an indifferent bedside manner. He refused to dispense pills and other medicines just because his patients wanted them. He was able to make a living and acquire some success as a physician when he perfected the administration of chloroform as an anesthetic used during surgeries and infant deliveries. He even delivered two babies while attending Queen Victoria.
He never married. His solitary existence and his abstinent personal habits allowed him more time than his colleagues to develop his medical practice and enabled him to pursue his intense interest in determining the cause of cholera epidemics.
Snow gave away all of the knowledge he developed. He made it available for free to any doctor who wanted it. No attempt was made by him to patent his many devices for dispensing chloroform and ether. As a result, physicians hired him to use his skill with their patients and he became famous for this.
One overriding personal characteristic of this ascetic doctor of the Victorian era was courage. He worked hard to develop his ideas and used the scientific method and laboratory investigations to establish his case in whatever area he was working. Once he became convinced of the rightness of his position, nothing could dislodge him. It was only his tremendous courage that made it possible for him to go up against the establishment and argue that something other than foul air was causing the deadly cholera. (McGuire 2013)
Snow’s determination of the cause of the cholera epidemic near the Broad Street pump and his ability, albeit temporary, to have the pump handle removed is worthy of recounting here. The 1854 cholera epidemic struck the Golden Square neighborhood of London with particular viciousness. It began on August 31 and started to wind down about September 7, however, many died over the next few days. Well over 500 people died during this epidemic in a small neighborhood. Snow tracked the numbers of deaths in the neighborhood, and it was clear to him from the pattern of death that the Broad Street pump was the center of the affliction and most likely the source of infection. On September 7, Snow convinced the Board of Governors and Directors of the Poor of St. James Parish that the epidemic was being caused by water from the pump. The next day the commissioners ordered that the pump handle be removed. Structural defects in the Broad Street well sump and the cross-connection to the nearby house sewer were not corrected until 1855.
Incredibly, the residents of Broad Street petitioned the Commissioners to reopen the well that had caused hundreds of deaths in their neighborhood. This was partly due to the official linkage of the severe, isolated epidemic in the Broad Street area to miasma (foul air). In an amazing footnote to history, the commissioners voted 10 to 2 to reopen the well on September 26, 1855, one year and one week after the last deaths during the epidemic. According to contemporary reports, there was much rejoicing in the street that the Broad Street well was reopened. The polluted well was not permanently closed until the cholera epidemic of 1866.
With the emphasis on the Broad Street pump episode in most historical accounts, his pioneering work in epidemiology based on cholera occurrence in a district of London served by two water supplies usually gets lost. Snow was able to demonstrate that homes in areas of London that were being served contaminated water from the tidal portion of the Thames Estuary were far more likely to have cholera deaths than the homes served water from an unpolluted upland source. He believed that dumping sewage into a water supply perpetuated the death spiral caused by cholera and other waterborne diseases. Snow had strong opinions on sewers and drinking water systems.
“Snow who distilled his own drinking water, agreed that London water should be improved, but he considered the abolition of cesspools and the increasing preference for water closets a sanitary disaster…water closets connected to sewer lines that emptied into rivers also used for metropolitan drinking water were, in his mind, primarily an efficient means of recycling the cholera agent through the intestines of victims as rapidly as possible. Sanitary reforms were needed, but flushing the waste of a town into the same river by which one quenched ones’ thirst seemed sheer stupidity.” (Vinten-Johansen et al 2003)
Dr. John Snow died of a stroke on June 16, 1858, 42 days after the birth of John L. Leal who grew to be a physician who carried on Snow’s concern about the ability of contaminated water to spread disease. If the discoveries of Dr. John Snow had been accepted and followed by engineers, sewer planners and drinking water providers beginning in 1854, millions of deaths would have been avoided. Snow was only one person trying to overcome the juggernaut of the miasma theory. He was far ahead of his time.
Hempel, Sandra. 2007. The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera. Los Angeles, Ca.: University of California.
Johnson, Steven. 2006. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, New York City, N.Y.: Riverhead Books.
McGuire, Michael J. (2013). The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, CO:American Water Works Association.
Vinten-Johansen, Peter, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman and Michael Rip. 2003. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine. New York City, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.