Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography

Technology Disinfection

Disinfection Technology in American Waterworks

Filtration was used throughout the 19th Century in American water works, initially with small water filters used by individual consumers that were eventually replaced by filtration systems that could handle all of the water delivered by a water utility.  Unfortunately, filtration proved unable to prevent diseases such as typhoid and cholera, and although some systems were able to remove infection sources from their watershed (i.e. humans), a better solution was needed.

In the late 1800s, physicians, chemists and public health professionals recognized that chemicals could be used to disinfect water supplies.  Substances containing chlorine showed the most promise and were tested in numerous applications.  The big break for chlorine came in Jersey City, New Jersey, where the city has contracted with a company for a supply of water  that required "that the water delivered should be pure and wholesome and free from pollution deleterious for drinking and domestic purposes."  The city brought suit against the company for failing to deliver water that met this requirement, and the subsequent trail upheld the city on this point, and the company was to ordered  to construct sewers to remove contaminants from the Rockaway River watershed or create "other plans or devices" to produce water of the required purity.  The company chose to construct a chlorination plant, which was accepted in a subsequent trial as  “capable of rendering the water delivered to Jersey City, pure and wholesome, for the purposes for which it is intended, and is effective in removing from the water those dangerous germs which were deemed by the decree to possibly exist therein at certain times." 

After this result, chlorine became widely adoption as a disinfection technology.

1832 Facts regarding the disinfecting powers of chlorine : with an explanation of the mode in which it operates, and with directions how it should be applied for disinfecting purposes, by Chester Averill.

1885 Disinfection and Disinfectants.  Preliminary Report made by the Committee of the American Public Health Association, by George M. Sternberg, M.D., Surgeon, U.S. Army | Also here |

1887 "Untersuchungen über die desinficirende Wirkung des Kalkes," by Paul Liborius, Zeitschrift für Hygiene, 2:15-51 (1887)

1889 "Desinfection der Typhus- und Choleraausleerungen mit Kalk," by E. Pfuhl, Zeitschrift für Hygiene, 6:97-104 (1889)

1890 "Ueber die desinficirende Eigenschaft des Chlorkalkes," by Dr. med. Franz Nissen, Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infectionskrankheiten, 8:62-77 (1890)

1893 "Einfaches Verfahren Wasser in grossen Mengen keimfrei zu machen," by Moritz Traube, Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infectionskrankheiten, 16:149-150 (1894)

1894 “The Electrical Purification of Water,” by Thomas M. Drown, Journal of the New England Water Works Association 8(4):183-7 (June, 1894)
Page 185: the idea itself of chemical disinfection is repellent.

1895 “Sand Filtration of Water, with Special Reference to Results Obtained, at Lawrence, Massachusetts,” by George W. Fuller, from American Public Health Association, Public Health Papers and Reports 20:64-71 (1895).
Page 64:  While chemicals have been of much aid in surgery by bringing about antisepsis and asepsis, it is very improbable that people would allow their drinking water to be drugged with chemicals, even with the view of removing dangerous bacteria – indeed, such a method might prove very dangerous in many cases.

1895 "Zur Herstellung keimfreien Trinkwassers durch Chlorkalk," by Marine-Stabsarzt Dr. Bassenge, commandirt zum Institute für Infectionskrankheiten, Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infectionskrankheiten, 20:227-244 (1895)

1896 "The Preparation of Germ-free Drinking-Water by means of Calcium Chloride," by Dr. Bassenge.  From Zeitschrift für Hygiene, 1895, p. 227.  Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 123:493

1896 "Water Purification in New Jersey," by Moses Nelson Baker, C. E. of Upper Montclair, N. J. (Associate Editor, "Engineering News," New York), Twentieth Annual Report of the Department of Health of the State of New Jersey. 20:229-266 (1896)

1901 "Chlorinated Lime (Trauabe's Method)," Public Water-supplies: Requirements, Resources, and the Construction of Works, by Frederick Eugene Turneaure and Harry Luman Russell

1903 “A Chemical Method of Sterilizing Water Without Affecting its Potability.” by Vincent B. Nesfield, Public Health. 15(7): 601–3.

1905. “A Simple Chemical Process of Sterilizing Water for Drinking Purposes for Use in the Field and at Home,” by Vincent B. Nesfield, The Journal of Preventive Medicine. 8: 623-32.

1905 "Discussion on Purification of Water for Domestic Use” by George C. Whipple, from Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 54 Part D:192-106 (1905).
Page 199:  George C. Whipple - Thus in St. Louis the popular prejudice against the use of alum in clarifying the water is said to be so intense that a local engineer has said "it is very doubtful if alum could be used, no matter how excellent the results which might be obtained."  One reason for this prejudice was well illustrated by the following expression used in an editorial in one of their local papers: "We don’t want to drink puckered water."

1906 “Disinfection as a Means of Water Purification, with discussion,” by George C. Whipple, Proceedings of the American Water Works Association 26:266-288 (1906)
Page 266:  George C. Whipple - The idea of adding poisonous chemicals to water for the purpose of improving its quality for drinking purposes has generally been considered as illogical and unsafe, and unfortunately most of the substances which have the power of disinfecting are oisonous to a greater or less extent.
Page 282:  William P. Mason - I very much question if the public at large would be willing to disinfect water to-day. We are scarcely driven that far yet.
Page 286:  P.A. Maignen - Among the so-called "disinfectants" tried may be cited copper, chlorine and oxalic acid.  All these substances are poisonous.

1907 “Pure Water,Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 10:30 (January 15, 1907).  Discussion of the Nesfield system of water purification.

1909 Proceedings of the Twenty-Ninth Annual Convention of the American Water Works Association | Also here |
The Sterlization of the Jersey City Water Supply Company at Boonton, N. J., by Dr. J. L. Leal
Description of the Process and Plant of the Jersey City Water Supply Company for the Sterilization of the Water of the Boonton Reservoir, by George W. Fuller
Description of Methods of Operations of the Sterilization Plant of the Jersey City Water Supply Company at Boonton, N. J., by George A. Johnson
Discussion on papers by Messrs, Leal, Fuller and Johnson

1910 "Hyperchlorite Treatment of Public Water Supplies; Its Adapability and Limitations," A paper by George A. Johnson, New York, presented before the Milwaukee Convention of the American Public Health Association. The Engineering Record 62(12):321-323 (September 17, 1910)

1912 "The Development of the Hypochlorite Treatment of Drinking Water," by H. A. Whittaker, Meeting of March 19, 1912 Transactions of the Minnesota Pathological Society 1:64-70.

1914 "Practical Talk on Water Purification," The Water Chronicle: Devoted to All Water Utilization, 4:(3): 125-132 (September, 1914) Good description of the Jersey City chlorination plant.

1916 "Water Purification Plants in Large American Cities," Municipal Journal (July 13, 1916) 41(2):39 (July 13, 1916)

1916 "Sterilizing Water and Cleaning Mains," Municipal Journal 41:153-156 (August 10, 1916)

1918 Chlorination of Water, by Joseph Race

1920 “Water Supply: For Municipal, Domestic and Potable Purposes, Including Its Sources, Conservation, Purification and Distribution,” by Henry Wayland Hill, The Encyclopedia Americana, 29:39–65.

1921 "Water Supply and Water Purification, a Symposium," Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers 47:653-682 (1921)

1922 Annual Report of Ohio Conference on Water Purification, Issues 1-8

1948 The quest for pure water; the history of water purification from the earliest records to the twentieth century, by Moses Nelson Baker

1950 “Forty Years of Chlorination: 1910–1949,” by Joseph Race, Journal Institution of Water Engineers and Scientists. 4:479–505.

1977 Pragmatic environmentalist, sanitary engineer George E. Waring, Jr., by Martin V. Melosi

1999 "Typhoid Rates and the Public Acquisition of Private Waterworks, 1880-1920," by Werner Troesken, The Journal of Economic History 59(4):927-948 (December 1999)
Progressive-Era reformers claimed typhoid, a waterborne disease, was more prevalent in cities with private water companies than in cities with public water companies. This article tests this claim for the 1880 to 1920 period. The evidence suggests private companies invested in water filters more often than public companies, and that switch- ing from private to public provision of water did little to improve typhoid

2008 "Water and Chicago's Mortality Transition, 1850-1925," Explorations in Economic History 45(1):1-26 (January 2008)

2013 The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives, by Michael J. McGuire | Also here (subscription required) | Everything you need to know about chlorination in Jersey City.

Also see the general bibliography page, which includes links to several lists of waterworks with information about pipes.


© 2016 Morris A. Pierce