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History of Water Quality, Purification and Filtration

Water is one of the most important aspects of life on Earth, and yet so many of us take it for granted. Without water, life on Earth would cease to exist. Plants, animals and human beings all require water. It is, in a sense, life’s battery. Water can also be detrimental, though, if not kept clean and potable.

The dichotomy of its is a life giver and also a life taker. It is for this reason that humans have been working on methods of obtaining pure water since the beginning of human existence. Archeological evidence shows that people have been attempting to purify water and give it a pleasurable taste since prehistoric times.

Early humans believed that the purity of water was determined by taste; if the water had a pleasing taste, then it was pure. As a result, the method of purifying water in ancient times was to add herbs or flowers to the water, but this was obviously not a true method of purification, nor was it enough to quell the search for one.

In 2000 B.C., Sanskrit documents about medical concerns were created called the Sus’ruta Samhita. The Sus’ruta Samhita declares that “impure water should be purified by being boiled over a fire, or being heated in the sun or by dipping a heated iron into it, or it may be purified by filtration through sand and coarse gravel and then allowed to cool.”

Inscriptions have been discovered on the walls of the tomb of Amenophis II in Thebes. The inscription depicts the Egyptian method of purifying water in which they siphoned the water through a series of wick siphons. The inscription has been dated 1450 B.C.

The Bible even has evidence of possible methods of water purification. In Exodus 15:22-27, Moses and the Israelites came upon Marah and found that the waters there were bitter. Moses was guided towards a tree and told to place the tree into the waters of Marah. Moses did as he was instructed and the waters of Marah were sweetened thereafter. While it is unclear what type of tree this was, or if any type of filtration process was used, the evidence points to at least a concern about water quality.

Another early method of filtering water was developed by the famous Greek doctor, Hippocrates, in the 3rd century B.C. Recognizing that boiling water did not remove suspended solids, Hippocrates used a cloth bag to strain the water after boiling it. This method was later called “Hippocrates’ Sleeve.”

In 1627, Sir Francis Bacon compiled 10 experiments in A Natural History of Ten Centuries. He was led to believe that water could be filtered through sand when he read about a successful experiment purifying seawater in this manner.

In the late 1600s, Lucas Antonius Portius, an Italian physician, wrote about the multiple sand filtration method. The method had 3 pairs of sand filters consisting of downward and upward flow.

Following these discoveries, sand filters and rainwater cisterns were developed. La Hire, a French scientist, proposed in 1703 that all households should have a rainwater cistern along with a sand filter. 100 years later, the first municipal water treatment plant was installed in Paisley, Scotland.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, water quality has become even more important and numerous methods of water purification and filtration have been developed.

Additional information on current methods of water filtration and purification are available in the Education Center and the What is TDS? section.


1. National Environmental Services Center: 
2. "Water Quality and Treatment: A Handbook of Public Water Supply." American Water Works Association (AWWA). 1971.

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Did You Know?

Water is our planet's most precious resource.

  • The average American uses about 50 gallons (190 liters) of water daily.
  • Flushing a toilet uses 2 to 7 gallons (7.5 to 26.5 liters) of water.
  • A five-minute shower uses 25 to 50 gallons (95 to 190 liters) of water.
  • Leaving the water on while brushing your teeth wastes 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of water each time!
  • At least 400 million people live in regions with severe water shortages.
  • Water is the original health drink.  It contains no fat, no calories and no cholesterol.