Ancient Maya Water Purification System
Ancient Maya Water Purification System

The first documented use of water treatment was in around 1500 BC. by the Egyptians. They mainly used heating methods to purify water. They alternated between sunlight, fire and red-hot iron. In addition, they used sophisticated sand and gravel techniques to clean the water.

The next time we hear of water purification were the Greeks in 500 BC. to 500 AD. In fact, Hippocrates created a fairly sophisticated system that worked well. His method consisted of passing the water through a cloth filter. The cloth filter was dubbed the Hippocratic Tube and successfully produced water with fewer contaminants.

In 1746 the first patented water filter system was developed. These filters used a combination of wool, sponge and charcoal to remove sediment and particles.

In the late 18th century, Robert Thom built Scotland’s first sewage works. The plant used slow sand filtration to remove up to 99% of bacteria from the water.

With this power station, the entire town of Paisley in Scotland has access to drinking water mains for the first time.


What is a Water Purification System?

Water purification is a general term for a series of processes that make water suitable for drinking, medical, industrial, etc. Water treatment processes aim to remove or reduce existing water contaminants to levels where water can be reused.


Why Were Water Purification Systems Invented?

Water treatment systems have been developed to meet the need for clean and safe drinking water. Access to clean water is essential for human survival and well-being, as contaminated water can lead to a variety of water-borne diseases and health problems. Throughout history, communities have faced numerous challenges related to water quality, including pollution from industrial and agricultural activities, microbial contamination, and natural pollutants.
The development of water treatment systems was aimed at:

  1. Ensuring Public Health:
    Contaminated water can contain harmful pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever. Purification systems help remove or reduce these pathogens and make the water potable.
  2. Preventionof water-borne diseases:
    In the past, outbreaks of water-borne diseases were frequent and caused many deaths. Water treatment systems reduce the risk of such outbreaks by providing clean water for consumption and other domestic uses.
  3. OverallImprovement of Water Quality.
    Water can contain a variety of contaminants, including heavy metals, chemicals, and organics. These pollutants can adversely affect human health and the environment. Purification systems remove or reduce these contaminants, thereby improving water quality.
  4. Supporteconomic development:
    Access to clean water is essential for economic growth and development. This enables the efficient operation of industries, increases agricultural productivity and supports a healthy and productive workforce.
  5. AddressingEnvironmental Issues:
    Proper water purification helps protect aquatic ecosystems from pollution and protects biodiversity. Additionally, the purified water is released into natural water bodies with less harmful effects.

The development of water purification systems has evolved over time from simple methods such as boiling and sedimentation to more sophisticated techniques such as filtration, chlorination, ultraviolet (UV) treatment and reverse osmosis. These systems are used on a large scale for urban water supply and treatment, and on a small scale for private households and communities without access to central water infrastructure.

John Snow
John Snow

How was Contaminated Water identified in the 18th Century?

In the 18th century, the identification of contaminated waters was based primarily on basic observation, common knowledge, and sometimes trial and error. The understanding of waterborne diseases and the notion of environmentally harmful microorganisms were not well established at the time. However, some methods and signs have been identified that indicate water quality issues:

Observation of color and smell

In the 18th century, people often relied on their senses to detect possible water pollution. If the water was an unusual color, such as cloudy or discolored in appearance, or had an unpleasant odor, this was considered suspicious and should probably be avoided.

  1. Taste testing:

While not the most reliable method, taste testing is sometimes used to assess water quality. If the water tastes strange or unpleasant, this could be taken as a warning sign.

  1. Health Effects Observation: 

People discovered that drinking water from certain sources led to an increase in diseases such as cholera, dysentery and other gastrointestinal problems. These eruptions were often linked to a specific water source, suggesting that the water was contaminated.

  1. Knowing Local Sources:

In many communities, some water sources have been safer or more reliable than others. This knowledge was often passed down from generation to generation, and people avoided water from sources suspected of being contaminated.

  1. Avoid water near polluting activities: 

People knew that water near sewers, animal waste, or other pollutants could be more susceptible to disease. Therefore, they often refrained from using water coming from those places. 

  1. Boiling Water:

 Although not a method of identification, boiling water was a common practice to make drinking water safer. Although people may not know exactly why it works, they have found that boiling water before drinking reduces the incidence of waterborne diseases.

It should be noted that the scientific understanding of water pollution and the role of microorganisms in causing disease only emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to the pioneering work of scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Before that, knowledge and methods for identifying contaminated water have been based on observations and empirical experience.

What Were Some of The Early Methods Used to Purify Water?

18th Century Laboratory
18th Century Laboratory

1. Egyptians (1500 BC)

One of the first cultures to enjoy good water was the Egyptians. They used various methods to purify drinking water. To get rid of harmful bacteria, they boiled water, warmed it in the sun, or dipped it in a hot iron. They also strained the water through sand and gravel to filter out impurities from the water. Interesting fact: They even wrote instructions on the purification of water on the walls of the tombs of Amenhotep II and Ramesses II.

2. Ancient Greece (500 BC to 500 AD)

The Egyptians were first, but the Greeks were not far behind. In fact, they provided us with a technology that we still use today: home water filters. When were water filters invented? In the 3rd century BC, Hippocrates invented the so-called Hippocrates shell, which consisted of a simple cloth filter. Just pour boiling water here and you will be able to have water with few impurities.

3. 1671 (AD)

Over the next few centuries, not much happened as the world entered the Dark Ages. Things changed in 1671 when Sir Robert Bacon studied how to use sand filters to remove salt from seawater. His idea was to soak the sand with sea water to remove excess sodium. He published his findings in Tenth Century National History, and although they were wrong, he got others interested in how to purify drinking water.

4. 1700s-1800s (AD)

In the 18th century, the development of the microscope gave scientists new insights into the myriad microbes that live in water. French scientist Philippe de la Haile developed a pioneering rainwater reservoir with a sand filter. The tank was also raised to prevent mold and frost and its traces. The City of Paisley finally followed his advice in 1804 and built the world’s first municipal water treatment plant. Gravel and sand filters were used to filter the drinking water supply.

5. 1854 (AD)

In the mid-19th century, British scientist John Snow discovered that cholera was water-borne. After some experiments, he also discovered that chlorine could be used to purify contaminated water, and chlorination came to be used as a popular form of water purification. Chlorine kills these nasty disease-causing bacteria, making people less likely to get sick.

6. 1900s (AD)

By the 20th century, most developed countries had enacted regulations that set minimum standards for water quality. The United States was a little behind in enacting the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this law establishes national drinking water standards to keep us all safe. Water systems serving 25 or more people have maximum permissible levels of chemical and pathogenic contamination.

Robert Thom Scotish Engineer
Robert Thom Scotish Engineer

What Challenges Were Encountered During the Process of Purifying Water in the Ancient Days?

In ancient times, purification of water was an important process to make it safe for consumption. However, it faced some challenges due to advanced technology and lack of scientific knowledge. Some of the biggest challenges in purifying water in ancient times included:


1. Identification of contaminants:

Ancient civilizations lacked the scientific understanding of identifying different types of water contaminants, including bacteria, viruses, and chemical contaminants. Visual indicators such as color, smell and taste were often relied on to assess water quality, but these were not always reliable indicators of safety.

2. Limited knowledge of disease transmission:

People knew that drinking contaminated water could lead to illness, but they didn’t have a clear understanding of how water spread disease. This lack of knowledge has hampered our ability to develop effective water purification technologies.

3. Lack of advanced cleaning methods:

Ancient civilizations used simple methods such as boiling water to kill some pathogens. However, this process was time consuming and required large amounts of fuel. Additionally, cooking alone cannot remove all types of contaminants.

4. Improper filtering techniques:

Some civilizations used primitive filters made of sand, cloth, or charcoal to remove large particles, but these methods were not always effective in removing microscopic pathogens and contaminants..

5. Limited access to clean water sources:

Access to clean water was often limited and many communities relied on natural water sources such as rivers, streams and wells, which were vulnerable to pollution from various sources.

6. Lack of sanitary facilities:

Inappropriate sanitation practices, such as disposing of waste near water sources and using contaminated water for various activities, contributed to the overall pollution of water supplies.

7. Preservation and storage:

Long-term storage of water without proper containers and storage techniques can allow bacteria and other pathogens to grow, making it unsafe to drink.

8. Effects of weather conditions:

In some areas, water availability was highly dependent on seasonal changes and weather conditions, making it difficult to maintain a stable and reliable water supply.

9. Cultural and Religious Beliefs:

Some cultural practices and beliefs may prevent or impede the adoption of certain water purification methods, further threatening water safety.

Despite these challenges, ancient civilizations developed a variety of innovative water purification methods depending on the knowledge and circumstances of the time. It is important to recognize their ingenuity in trying to ensure access to clean water. However, modern advances in water treatment and purification have greatly improved water quality and accessibility, improving public health outcomes.

How Has the Water Purification Process Improved Over the Years?

America began building large sand filters in the 1890s. High speed sand filtration was superior to low speed sand filtration, using a jet stream to clean the filter and improve its capacity. The researchers also found that filtration worked more effectively when the water was treated by first coagulating and settling. At the same time, water chlorination became more widespread and water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever became less of a problem.
However, it didn’t take long for chlorination to have negative side effects. Evaporation of chlorine has been linked to respiratory illness, and experts have started looking for alternatives. Calcium hypochlorite and ferric chloride were first used in Belgium in 1902 and ozone in his 1906 in France. People have also started using household water filters to prevent the harmful effects of chlorine itself.
Water softening was invented by him in 1903 to desalinate water. Then, in 1914, standards for public transport drinking water based on E. coli growth were introduced. However, these water standards were not applied to municipal water supplies until the 1940s. Thirty years later, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 established the principle that everyone has the right to clean water.
It was also at this point that the primary public health concern for drinking water shifted from pathogens to man-made contaminants such as pesticides, chemicals and industrial sludge. New regulations addressed water pollution, and waste from industrial processes and water treatment plants adapted to new threats. They applied new techniques such as activated carbon adsorption, aeration and flocculation. In the 1980s, researchers developed the first membranes for reverse osmosis systems. Soon after, the water treatment facility began conducting regular water risk assessments.


Scientific understanding of the role of microorganisms in causing water pollution and disease only emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the pioneering work of scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Ancient civilizations developed various innovative methods of tackling water purification using the best knowledge and technology of their time.