Technology, World-Changing Inventions

Water Treatment Technology Through History

Water Treatment Technology Through History


Civilization has changed in uncountable ways over the course of human history, but one factor remains the same: the need for clean drinking water. Every significant ancient civilization was established near a water source, but the quality of the water from these sources was often suspect. Evidence shows that humankind has been working to clean up their water and water supplies since as early as 4000 BCE.

Cloudiness and particulate contamination were among the factors that drove humanity’s first water treatment efforts; unpleasant taste and foul odors were likely driving forces, as well. Written records show ancient peoples treating their water by filtering it through charcoal, boiling it, straining it, and through other basic means. Egyptians as far back as 1500 BCE used alum to remove suspended particles from drinking water.

By the 1700s CE, filtration of drinking water was a common practice, though the efficacy of this filtration is unknown. More effective slow sand filtration came into regular use throughout Europe during the early 1800s.

As the 19th century progressed, scientists found a link between drinking water contamination and outbreaks of disease. Drs. John Snow and Louis Pasteur made significant scientific finds in regards to the negative effects microbes in drinking water had on public health. Particulates in water were now seen to be not just aesthetic problems, but health risks as well.

Slow sand filtration continued to be the dominant form of water treatment into the early 1900s. in 1908, chlorine was first used as a disinfectant for drinking water in Jersey City, New Jersey. Elsewhere, other disinfectants like ozone were introduced.

The U.S. Public Health Service set federal regulations for drinking water quality starting in 1914, with expanded and revised standards being initiated in 1925, 1946, and 1962. The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974, and was quickly adopted by all fifty states.

Water treatment technology continues to evolve and improve, even as new contaminants and health hazards in our water present themselves in increasing numbers. Modern water treatment is a multi-step process that involves a combination of multiple technologies. These include, but are not limited to, filtration systems, coagulant (which form larger, easier-to-remove particles call “floc” from smaller particulates) and disinfectant chemicals, and industrial water softeners.

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Planned future articles on Sandy Historical will expand on some of the concepts mentioned here. Please visit this page again soon for links to further reading.

World-Changing Inventions

Brush Up On Your History

The brush, in a general sense that encompasses all possible permutations of the device, has been around since before recorded human history, and in fact since before the dawn of civilization. Ancient cave paintings, dating back many 40,000 years or so, were surely created using a brush of some kind. The bristles may have been dried grass, feathers, human hair—we’ll likely never know for sure. But brushes have been around for a long, long time. Let’s take a look at what history we do know about these ubiquitous tools.

Brush Like An Egyptian

As with many things, the first recorded history of the brush dates back to ancient Egypt. Those wacky cat worshippers used reeds as brushes, crushing the ends to make them softer and more pliable. Countless hieroglyphics sprang from these primitive brushes, though few painted examples survive today. (Most still-existing hieroglyphics are carved in stone.)

Zipping ahead a millennia or two, by the fifteenth century, paint brushes and artist’s brushes were made with bristles made from animal hair—horse, pig, squirrel, goat, ox, badger, etc. The handles of these brushes were almost universally made from quills. As quills really only come in one shape—cylindrical—so did brush heads. Which makes the incredible talent seen in Renaissance era paintings all the more incredible.

Once the world was revolutionized industrially, metal ferrules became a part of brush making, which made it possible to create brushes in all kinds of shapes. Artists of the era embraced the possibilities as Impressionism became a popular style of painting. Not long after (cosmically speaking), the manufacture of synthetic bristles became possible, opening up scads of further possibilities.

A brush with death. Get it?! A BRUSH with DEATH. Hi-yo!

A brush with death. Get it?! A BRUSH with DEATH. Hi-yo!

Why Let Artists Have All the Fun?

Of course, there are far more types of brushes than just those used by artists. In the thousands of years that humans have been using brushes, the implement has been widely specialized. The hair brush, the floor brush (a.k.a. the broom), the industrial brush, the makeup brush, the cleaning and/or scrubbing brush—the list could be as long as your arm.

Perhaps the most famous non-paintbrush brush is the toothbrush. Evolving from the extremely primitive chew stick—which was, as the name implies, just a stick one chewed on to kind-of sort-of clean one’s teeth—the toothbrush as we know it was developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (619-907 CE). Handles for these brushes were generally made from bamboo or carved bone, and the bristles were made of hog bristles. Overall, a very pleasant thing to stick in one’s mouth, I’m sure.

For the next several hundred years, few innovations were made. At some point, it was determined that badger hair was better suited for the task than hog bristle. The first mass-produced toothbrush was produced in 1780, by Englishman William Addis. His Wisdom Toothbrushes are still sold in the UK today, to the tune of roughly 70 million per year. By 1840, mass-produced toothbrushes could be found in France, Germany, Japan, and numerous other countries.

In these United States, the first toothbrush patent (No. 18,653) was granted in 1857, though mass production didn’t commence until roughly 1885. In the early 1900s, celluloid handles replaced bone handles, and the first toothbrush with synthetic bristles, made of nylon, went on sale in 1938.

Brushing teeth did not, in fact, become a common, daily practice in the US until after World War II, during which all American soldiers had to clean their teeth every day. In a 2003 poll, the toothbrush was named the Number One invention Americans could not live without.

Photo credit: JD Hancock / Foter / CC BY

Technology, The Science of Film, Music & Art, World-Changing Inventions

Farnsworth His Weight in Gold

Philo Farnsworth was a prolific inventor who held over 300 US and foreign patents. He invented, or contributed considerably to the invention of, radar, infrared “night vision” devices, the modern baby incubator, and the electron microscope, among many other creations. He is best known, however, as the inventor the all-electronic television.

A Hero is Born

Philo Farnsworth was born in Indian Creek, Utah, on August 19, 1906. In 1918, the Farnsworth family moved to a farm near Rigby, Idaho, where Philo was excited to find that their new home was wired for electricity.

The Delco generator that provided the farm’s power was troublesome and often broke down. Fortunately, Philo proved to be a quick study with electrical and mechanical technology, and taught himself to repair the generator. Later, using a discarded electric motor left behind by the farm’s former tenants, he converted his mother’s manually-powered washing machine into an electric one.

A stash of technology magazines found in the home’s attic fueled his interest in electronics. While attending Rigby High School, where he excelled in chemistry and physics, Farnsworth won a $25 first-prize in a magazine contest for an magnetic car lock of his own invention.

In 1922, the Farnsworth family relocated again, to Provo, Utah, but Philo stayed behind. He worked on the railroad in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, saving his money so he could afford tuition at Brigham Young University. Philo began taking classes at BYU in the fall of 1923, at the tender age of 15.

Early Career

A year later, he was recruited to the United States Naval Academy. However, upon learning that the government would own the rights to any patents he was granted while in the military, he sought and was granted an honorable discharge.

Soon after, Farnsworth and his close friend, the similarly-electronically-inclined Cliff Gardner, moved to Salt Lake City to start a radio repair shop. The business failed, and Gardner moved back to Provo. Through the University of Utah, Farnsworth met Leslie Gorrell and George Everson, San Francisco philanthropists who agreed to fund Philo’s early work in television technology with a $6,000 grant. The duo also set up a laboratory in Los Angeles in which Farnsworth could conduct his experiments.

A few months later, prior to a key meeting with a nationally-recognized electrophysics expert, Gorrell and Everson insisted that Farnsworth apply for a patent for his nascent electronic television designs.

In September 1927, Farnsworth demonstrated his image dissector camera tube, essentially the device that made electronic television possible and that eliminated the need for the Nipkow disks that had thus far been a key component of (mechanical) television. A simple straight line was broadcast from the image dissector to a receiver in another room. “There you are,” Farnsworth said after an extended period of stunned silence from his assistants, “electronic television!”

Philo T. Farnsworth, the Father of Television, 1906 - 1971

Philo T. Farnsworth, the Father of Television, 1906 – 1971

Farnsworth demonstrated an updated, improved version of his electronic television system to the press in September 1928, and gave the first public demonstration at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1934. Picture definition on these early devices was poor, but the technology proved sound.

Patent Battles

Concurrently, Russian-American inventor Vladimir Zworykin was working on an all-electronic television system at Westinghouse, based in Pittsburgh. Soon, he was recruited by RCA to head its then-new television development department. Zworykin received a number of patents for his version of electronic television, though he was never able to make the device work satisfactorily.

David Sarnoff, then-head of RCA, offered to buy Farnsworth’s patents for $100,000 and give him a job at the company in 1931. Farnsworth refused, and soon after moved to Philadelphia to continue his work. RCA then filed an interference suit against Farnsworth, alleging that a Zworykin patent, awarded in 1923, took precedence over Farnsworth’s—despite the fact that Zworykin never actually produced a functioning transmitter tube a la the image dissector.

Farnsworth eventually prevailed, thanks in part to Gorrell and Everson’s prior insistence that he patent his earliest devices. In 1934, the US Patent Office rendered a decision granting priority for the invention of transmitter tubes to Farnsworth. RCA brought additional litigation, but all further appeals were denied and Sarnoff later agreed to pay royalties to Farnsworth.

Fortunately, Thomas Edison had died just a few years earlier, and so was not able to have Farnsworth murdered so as to steal his invention.

Photo credit: Dino Gravato / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Historical Science & Technology, Pseudoscience

Chymistry in Medieval Islam

While European alchemy was an amalgamation of science, magic, and religion, the practice took a somewhat different form in the Islamic world. Though the Islamic version of alchemy did address the transmutation of metals (turning lead into gold being the most famous example), it also incorporated a good deal of legitimate science that was closer to practical chemistry. The two disciplines—alchemy and chemistry—were so closely aligned in this region of civilization in this time period that a different word was often used to describe them both: chymistry.

The word “alchemy” is derived from the Arabic word kīmiyā, which, in turn, is derived from kemi, the ancient Egyptian word for “black”.

Chymistry & The Philosopher’s Stone

Building off Aristotle’s elemental studies, Jābir ibn Hayyān (see below) suggested that all metals include the four basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness—two interior and two exterior. For example, lead was said to be internally hot and moist and externally cold and dry; gold was said to be internally cold and dry but externally hot and moist.

Hayyān proposed that metals were formed by the fusion of sulfur and mercury—not the elements we now know but ideal, hypothetical substances in chymistry—that imparted them with the qualities of hot/dry and cold/moist, respectively. It was thought that the resulting metal depended on the purity and proportion of sulfur and mercury in the composition. (A later chymist known as al-Rāzī expanded this theory, adding a third component: salt.)

Hayyān theorized that, by rearranging the qualities of a given metal, a different metal could be created. Chemical processes such as distillation, calcination, evaporation, crystallization, and sublimation, were employed to this end. This line of research ultimately lead to the pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone of European alchemy.

philosophers stone

Notable Chymists

Khālīd ibn Yazīd is generally considered the first practitioner of chymistry in the medieval Muslim world, though his life and contributions to the science are apocryphal at best. Legend has it that he studied alchemy under the tutelage of Marianos of Alexandria. Yazīd is said to be the author of numerous notable alchemical texts, including The Book of Pearls, The Small Book of the Roll, The Big Book of the Roll, and The Paradise of Wisdom.

As a youth, Jābir ibn Hayyān studied science under Harbī al-Himyarī in Arabia. Later, in Baghdad, he became the official court alchemist for Hārūn al-Rashīd. A huge number of chymistry texts are attributed to Hayyān, though researchers suggest that many of these may have been the work of his students. Works that can be attributed to Hayyān with certainty include The Books of Balances, The Ten Books of Rectifications, The Seventy Books, and The One Hundred and Twelve Books, none of which are math tutorials.

Muḥammad Ibn Umayl al Tamīmī, born in the 11th century CE, was the author of two of the definitive texts of Islamic chymistry, The Epistle of the Sun and the Crescent and its accompanying volume, The Book on Silvery Water and Starry Earth.

Photo credit: Michael Maier / Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0


Boyle’s Law: Keeping Your Gas in Check

Boyle’s law is a gas law that states that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas have an inverse relationship. It can be stated thusly: For a fixed amount of a gas kept at a fixed temperature, pressure and volume are inversely proportional—if the pressure increases, the volume decreases (and vice versa) as long as the temperature stays the same.

Got it? Good. But where did this law come from?

And Who’s This Boyle Guy?

Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was an Irish philosopher, physicist, chemist, inventor, and theologian. Building off his study of alchemy, Boyle became the first modern chemist and a pioneer of modern experimental scientific method. Boyle’s Law is his most well-known contribution to science, and his book The Sceptical Chymist [sic] is considered one of the most important early works in the field of chemistry.

Boyle's Facebook profile pic.

Boyle’s Facebook profile pic.

Something Witty About Gas

Boyle was not the first to note the relationship between the pressure and volume of gases. Richard Towneley and Henry Power discovered this connection, but it was Boyle who confirmed the discovery via experimentation and published the findings.

Using an apparatus built by his assistant, Robert Hooke (who later went on to have his own law named after him), Boyle experimented on air. At the time, air was still considered one of the “four elements,” but Boyle considered air to be a fluid of particles at rest in between miniscule, invisible springs. He sought to understand air as an essential element of life.

Hooke’s device consisted of a J-shaped tube. Boyle’s experiments found him pouring mercury in one end, forcing the air to the other side, where it contracted under pressure. After establishing the control conditions, he discovered that a gas’s pressure is inversely proportionate to the volume it occupies.

There’s An Equation & Everything

The mathematical equation for Boyle’s Law, if you’re into that kind of thing, is fairly simple to write out. Not sure if the same can be said for understanding it. Anyway, here it is:

PV = k

P: pressure of the gas; V = volume of the gas; k = a constant

Photo credit: Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Historical Science & Technology

Hand Cannon: The Cannon that Fits in Your Hand

The hand cannon is basically exactly what the name suggests: a cannon small enough for one person to carry by hand. It is quite possibly the oldest form of portable firearm, as well as a very simple one, and is, obviously, a precursor to the handgun.

A Handy Canonical History of the Hand Cannon

Like many explosive and flammable inventions (fireworks, matches, etc.), the hand cannon originated in China. The earliest known example of a hand cannon was discovered in Manchuria and dated to the 13th century CE. Visual depictions of soldiers wielding hand cannons date back to the twelfth century, in Sichuan.

Like gunpowder and spaghetti before it, the hand cannon was a Chinese invention that was quickly adopted by Europeans upon its “discovery” by Western peeps. The earliest reliable evidence of the weapon’s use in Europe dates to the 14th century; Arabian peoples are thought to have started using hand cannons around this time, as well.

Unsurprisingly, knowledge and use of the device also spread quickly throughout Asia. Historical evidence suggests that they were used in Korea by the 14th century. Though Japan learned of the weapon and its construction around this same period, firearms of any sort were not produced there in any appreciable numbers until the mid-1500s.

A surviving hand cannon from the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1271-1368)

A surviving hand cannon from the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1271-1368)

Flashy, but Dubiously Effective

The hand cannon is, essentially, a very rudimentary version of a pistol. It is comprised of a single barrel, almost invariably with a handle of some sort, and was commonly accompanied by a long wooden stock. The stock was used not to brace the weapon against the user’s shoulder, as with rifles, but rather to sturdy it against the ground.

While all surviving examples of ancient hand cannons were constructed from metal, historical evidence suggests that bamboo-barreled versions were not uncommon.

No firing mechanism was used; instead, manual ignition was required to discharge the weapon. Smoldering wood or coal, fire-heated iron rods, or matches were used to light the gunpowder inside through a touch hole at the stopped end of the barrel. Often, two people were required to fire a hand cannon: one to hold and aim the device, and another to fire it. Triangular or Y-shaped stands were sometimes used, making it possible for a gunner to support the weapon with one hand and ignite it with the other.

In the earliest days, ammunition for hand cannons often consisted of whatever its user could fit into the barrel; rocks and gravel were commonly used. Before long, more sophisticated projectiles, such as stone or iron balls or arrows, were being produced.

Unfortunately, gunpowder at that time was notoriously unstable, which severely reduced the effectiveness of the hand cannon. From what modern scientists can tell, the earliest hand cannons would’ve lacked the firepower to pierce even light armor. Accuracy was not a thing, either.

However, despite their ineffectuality as a projectile weapon, hand cannons were used with a moderate level of success in the Battle of Ain Jalut. Mamluk Egyptian combatants used hand cannons to frighten the horses of the invading Mongols, causing considerable disorder that, at least in small part, contributed to the home team’s victory.

Photo credit: Ytrottier / Foter / CC BY-SA