A historical perspective on the development of urban water systems
Professor of Water Resources Engineering
Updated 1998-04-16; and continuously growing - bits
added whenever I give this lecture.
Contents Only the hyperlinked items have material
This website provides an individual perspective, in other words a viewpoint of history coloured by my personal experience. To glean an idea of the limitations of that experience, you are welcome to review my home pages by clicking on the author name above.
I usually start the course by announcing the global human population at the beginning and end of my first lecture, and estimate the size of city required to accommodate the net increase at the end of the course. I usually start this lecture by reading from the first general engineering reference book on how to design water supplies, written in 1835 by an American engineer who was born in Montreal. In fact I find that considerable information is available on the evolution of water supplies, but much less is known about early wastewater collection (sewerage) and urban stormwater drainage systems. They are of course related; sanitary sewers follow water supplies within a decade or so, and in regions of water scarcity, surface water collection forms part of the water supply. However, one would not know that from history books, which are expansive about water supply but silent on sewers.
As you read through these pages bear in mind a few other salient points...
Public water supplies in gallons per capita-day
Compare: Guelph residents in 1998 consumed 300L (about 80 US gals) each per day.
History of Water Supply
Click on the thumbnail to get a large image, then hit "back".
Evidence of activity concerned with human health and water supply has been found in
civilizations throughout human history (Rosen, undated). Sites excavated in the Indus
Valley and in Punjab show that bathrooms and drains were common in Indian cities 4
millennia ago. Streets were drained by covered sewers 2 ft. deep and made of moulded
bricks cemented with a mortar of mud. Within the houses, drain pipes were made of pottery
embedded in gypsum (Rosen). Even two millennia BC, the Greeks and Egyptians had adequate
supplies of drinking water for their cities, drained streets, had bathrooms in their
houses, and, in Crete, water flushing arrangements for toilets. The Incas also had
impressive sewerage systems and baths (but I have no illustrations of them yet).
The qanat is essentially a tunnel constructed for the conveyance of water from an underground aquifer to a point at ground surface some distance away. The water source is the tunnel which reaches down and into the water table. The other shafts provide ventilation and give access for cleaning and repair of the conduit tunnel below.
Lines of qanats leading to Firuzabad in Iran. As recently as 1933 all of Tehran's water came from qanats. This picture and the next five were taken from the National Geographical Society book the Builders - marvels of engineering pub. by the NGS (1992) (the book contains neat illustrations for showing off the history of engineering construction, especially bridges). I have only made a few rather poor small illustrations here to point you to the original source.
Qanats carry an average of 105 gallons/d.
Very ancient metal pipes are known to have been used in Egypt. They were of hammered copper 1.4 mm thick. These pipes were cemented into grooves cut in solid flagstones.
As sanitary engineers, the Romans set a great example and left their mark in history. A
public water supply was considered a basic essential of civic life (Rosen). They had
well-developed water supply systems, and their standards of engineering sanitation were
not matched again in Europe and N. America until the 19th century. Studies show that
Rome's water supplies exceeded 40 gallons per head per day, and was supplied to public
baths, fountains and other public structures, as well as private houses. At their peak
they were able to provide an estimated 300 gallons per head per day. Their aqueducts and
cisterns can be seen all over Europe, and were frequently copied in medieval times. The
elaborate water supply systems of Roman times were remarkably successful, considering that
there was little recorded knowledge of the strength of materials, and that the equations
used today (such as Manning, Chezy, and Darcy) were not around until the 18th century.
Essentially similar ancient aqueducts and waterworks dating from the Spanish colonial
period can be seen in Mexico today.
Their public water supply did not cover use by private users, but leading citizens managed to have lines run to their houses. Rules forbade private water for everyone else. Other Romans bribed the water officials to run pipes to their houses or secretly bored holes into the water channels and tanks and laid their own pipes.
Contemporary written accounts of great detail are available on the water system for Rome. The Roman aqueducts were distinguished from the earlier ones mainly by their size and number. When Rome's aqueducts were nearly completed in the early Principate, all the aqueducts together totalled about 260 miles, of which only 30 were on arches. The first was built in 312 B.C. The Cloaca maxima (main drain) still forms part of the drainage system of modern Rome.
The black and white pen drawings of Roman city water systems below have been taken from a charming book City. A story of Roman planning and construction by David Macaulay, pub by Houghton 1974 ISBN 0-395-19492-X, which you should consult, because my illustrations here are deliberately chosen to avoid copyright problems, by indicating only what is available in the book. Similarly, the color paintings and photos are from the Builders - marvels of engineering by the National geographic Society (1992), cited above.
Besides wood, pottery and lead pipes were the most widely used in the Middle ages. Properly sealed earthenware pipes can work at pressures of up to 50 atmospheres and are strengthened by embedding in concrete, as was the Roman practice. Pipes of lead and bronze were employed by the Greeks but the most extensive use of lead pipes for the local distribution of water came with the Romans, though they were well aware of the danger of lead poisoning. Strips were cut from cast sheets about ten feet wide, bent around a wooden former and joined by solder. The ratio of tin to lead in the solder was carefully defined but leaks often occurred. The lead pipes of the Roman water-board are notable as the first known series of industrial products to be standardised.
Bronze pipes conveyed water from the mainland to the Phoenician island-city of Tyre. Bronze pipes were too costly for common use, but are occasionally found in the villas of the wealthy in Room, Pompeii, and Baiae.
Water from the mineral water spring at St. Moritz was conveyed in two lines of large hollow tree-trunks. Wooden pipes were also used by the Romans who sometimes applied iron collars to strengthen the joints. Wooden pipes were usually about 6 m long and 8 to 12 cm in diameter. Such medieval water-mains could withstand pressures up to 3.5 atmospheres. Special machines for boring these were devised. The most common wood for the purpose was elm.
Stone water courses, aqueducts, and wooden pipes were used in the 13th century. With few exception, the urban dwellers of medieval times were compelled to draw their water from centrally located Mountains or cisterns, or purchased water from authorized water carriers. Usually, pipes carried water to cisterns in the town at street intersections. People obtained their water from cisterns housed in very ornate and elaborate structures called the "Conduit".
Lead pipes were used in the 15th century, although the Romans were well aware of the
health consequences more than 1.5 millennia earlier.
By the 16th century, in many towns the people were required to carry all waste and
refuse to a few selected places outside the town. Butchers and fishmongers were also
forbidden to throw offal polluted the streets with excreta were punished, and animals,
especially swine, were not permitted to roam village streets. In Shakespeare's time, the
officials who supervised the "rakers" (who actually did the work), were called
"scavengers", equivalent to petty magistrates, according Dr. Johnson.
In London, water was brought in the 17th century from remote rivers by the New River
Company to reservoirs in the City. Several other companies developed and introduced
pumping, an idea originating evidently in Germany (Rosen). People obtained their water
from cisterns housed in very ornate and elaborate structures called the
"Conduit". During the 17th century, companies started to pump water to
reservoirs whence it was piped to private homes.
Developments were similar in N. America, the Roman lessons having evidently been forgotten. Even the idea of publicly-owned water and sanitary systems did not come into effect here until about the mid-19th century (Grigg, 1986). The construction of water supply systems in the U.S. dates from 1754 with a system for the Morravian settlement at Bethlehem, Pa. (Grigg, 1986). It comprised spring water pumped through bored logs. Philadelphia was another early system similarly using bored logs at about this time, but utilizing horse-driven pumps, as did Cincinnati. Such systems did not last more than a few years. In 1801 Philadelphia had the first use of large steam engines for municipal water conveyance. This pioneer public works was a dismal failure. Laying the wooden conduits was expensive, and the bored logs constantly sprung leaks, and the steam engines frequently broke down. The engines were replaced and iron pipe replaced the unreliable wooden mains a few years later.
During the 19th century, attention began to be directed to the connections between supplies, water courses, and the management of wastewater. Many communities were served with water from nearby sources such as springs and wells that were easily contaminated. Iron pipes and steam engines were introduced in the early 19th century, and were operating very reliably by mid-century. In 1842 the City of New York opened the Croton Aqueduct which allowed them to obtain water from a great distance away. It was constructed as a tunnel for most of its 33-mile length with a horseshoe cross-section. Its height and width were 13 ft 6" and it was lined with brick up to 24 inches thick. With the introduction of cast iron, wrought iron, and steel pipes which were able to withstand high pressures, it was no longer necessary to build an elevated channel across valleys.
The joints of cast iron pipes were normally of the spigot and socket type, caulked with lead, but flanged joints were used for connecting to valves and other fittings, and ball-and-socket joints had been designed to provide flexibility. Pipes were protected against corrosion by a coal-tar composition, first used in 1860 at Liverpool. Wrought iron tubes were made as early as 1825 by drawing long strips of hot metal through a ring-die.
The first steel water mains were being laid in the US about 1860. Early steel pipes were riveted but welded pipes were introduced in 1887. They were more susceptible to corrosion than cast iron.
In the US, the establishment of a community water supply generally preceded a sewerage system by a period of 5 to 50 years. Eventually the community water supplies were used to carry away household wastes. The death rates that had decreased due to improved water supply systems, began to rise in about 1815 due to polluted water.
During the late 19th century, water-borne diseases were reduced by protecting water supplies, conveying wastewater away from ground water sources, and by an awareness of public sanitation. Combined sewer systems were developed from the 1850's on, and continued to be built until the Second World War.
There was rapid growth in water supply and wastewater management programs in the early part of the 20th century. But the real advances in water quality control date from after the mid century, with significant federal legislation and local regulations being implemented from the 1970's on. Typical was the separation of sanitary and storm sewers.
Dogs were employed in the supply of water to households in Atlin British Columbia prior to a pipe network.
In the first half of the 19th century, the situation in Canadian cities was similar to that elsewhere. It was common to store human excrement and other wastes in pails which were dumped in the streets or emptied into the nearest body of water. In Montreal, the civic government ordered residents in 1760 to pile their daily refuse in front of their properties. Their collectors proceeded to dump it into the St. Lawrence River.
Honey bucket bag systems are still in use in the Arctic.
In Toronto, then York, the first attempts to; provide sewerage systems arose from waves of cholera of 1832, 1843, 1849 and 1854.
Hamilton started constructing its water supply in 1857, and its sewers soon after. They used the tragedy of the 1854 plague as a political force.
Prior to the 1908 construction of pipeline, reservoir, pumping station and stand pipe in Guelph, 50% of hospital bed space was occupied in the fall of each year by typhoid cases. The 3.9 mile long pipeline had an inside diameter of two feet. 95% was laid in tile pipe, and the remaining 5% was laid in iron pipe.
Advances in metallurgy and materials science led to relative reductions in the cost of construction of water and sewer systems. This led to a significant improvement in public health. The materials have evolved from stone and wood, lead, copper, ceramics and clay, cast iron, ductile iron, concrete, steel and most recently, plastics. Even with these advancements, conditions similar to earlier times may still be found in frontier settlement, such as in the NWT, where outbreaks of infectious hepatitis may still occur.
The Shoal Lake Aqueduct was constructed for the purpose of supplying Winnipeg with fresh water. The concrete work of the Shoal Lake Aqueduct in 1916 was quite complex.
The modem urban water system in the US and Canada provides adequate quantities of water
on a continuous pressure basis to virtually the entire urban population. In the first half
of the 19th century, the situation in Canadian cities was similar to that elsewhere. Most
buildings had no indoor plumbing, and it was common to store human excrement and other
wastes in pails which were dumped in the streets or emptied into the nearest body of water
(Ball, 1986). The civic government in Montreal ordered residents in 1760 to daily pile
their refuse in front of their properties, so that their collectors could dump it into the
St. Lawrence River, rather than continue heaving it over the City walls. "Honey
bucket" bag systems are still in use in the Arctic. In the spring of 1832, Toronto
(then York) was not pretty:
Hamilton started constructing its water supply in 1857, and its sewers soon after, using the tragedy of the 1854 plague as a political force. Saint John constructed permanent sewers using wooden gravity pipes in the 1830's. Advances in metallurgy and materials science led to relative reductions in the cost of construction of water and sewer systems, and public health improved significantly from the mid-19th century as a result of increased expenditures on the urban infrastructure. Materials have changed from stone and wood, to bricks and cast iron, to ductile iron, concrete and, latterly, plastics.
Today, however, conditions similar to earlier times may be found in frontier settlements (though rarely), e.g. in the NNW, where outbreaks of infectious hepatitis may still occur. Risky situations at the outfalls of combined sewer systems in public areas, again e.g. demand careful evaluation. Moreover, modem travel and communications lead to concern beyond our borders. Conditions in Bangladesh, e.g. are notorious, and warrant international attention, since some diseases could originate there and be transmitted elsewhere.
Here are the pics reproduced with permission from Gronlands vandforsyning 1950-1990 by Konrad von Rauschenberger and Hermann Jensen, 1996 ISBN 87-984385-0-6
Here are the Trans Alaska pipeline pics from the Builders - marvels of engineering by the National geographic Society (1992).
Built in 1975, the pipeline carries petroleum products 800 miles due South right
across Alaska from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, site of the infamous oilspill.
Elevated 40 inch pipeline made in Japan in 40 ft lengths allows animals to pass freely below.
Pipe supports are engineered to maintain freezing temperatures in the permafrost (oil in the pipe flows at 125 deg F). Note the cooling vanes and expansion joint.
78000 supports contain liquid ammonia, dissipate heat through the aluminum vanes. Pipe is insulated with fibreglass. Slides are teflon coated. Remotely controlled valves can cut off flow in 4 minutes.
Concrete thrust blocks weight down the pipe to stop it from floating in melted ground.
Refrigerated brine keeps the soil frozen solid.
350 river and stream crossings, 3 mountain ranges, and zones of seismic activity.
Autonomous diesel powered vehicle snoopy with sensors and some repair capability was used to inspect the pipe.
What does the history of urban water systems teach us?
Although my main premise remains unproven so far in these pages, it seems to me that more and more pure water and better pollution control are not part of the long-term solution, only short-term palliatives. In other words, we need new approaches that ensure bio-restoration of aquatic ecosystems as the price of development. Bigger, more cost-efficient conveyance infrastructure will only increase population intensification and "populution". New infrastructure and associated measures must now be required to restore aquatic ecosystems (including both species and genetic diversity), i.e. restore the physical and chemical flow conditions for habitat regeneration. Project budget provisions should now include all planning, design, construction, operation and future maintenance costs for bio-restoration as a continuing societal commitment (i.e. without end). Ultimately, aquatic ecosystem bio-restoration may depend on control, perhaps reduction, of the human "infestation".
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©1996,1997,1998 William James