History of Water Supply and Distribution

By Joe Bongiovanni

Humans have thrived on this planet partly due to our ability to use tools and shape our environment to meet our needs. The earliest evidence of this is the transition from a hunting and gathering to an agrarian based lifestyle. Agriculture and farming required plenty of water throughout the growing season. Lack of clean water reduced yields and sometimes led to starvation. It was critical for communities to have access to a reliable source of water, not just for growing food, but also for drinking and sanitation. Nearly every city was located near a source of water and a public water supply system was the catalyst from growth.

Aqueducts for Water Distribution by Angel Water

Ancient Technologies
The earliest attempts to distribute water across a distance was in the hillsides of northwest Persia. Slightly sloping tunnels called Qanats used gravity to force the water down the lines. This method was used throughout the region for thousands of years and as recently as the 1930’s in Tehran, Iran. Probably the most famous water distribution system of ancient times was the Roman Aqueduct. These impressive structures moved water over 20 miles to Rome from springs in the Anio Valley. The longest structure is actually 57 miles long because of the meandering path designed to maintain a constant stream of water.

Distribution of Water Supply
After getting water from its source to a city, a water supply distribution system is necessary to provide on-demand water access to residents. Channels were cut from stone, brick, rubble, and ancient concrete. Some of the first known piping systems where made of wood, but there is also evidence of pipes made from clay and lead. Entrepreneurs and inventors continued to test new materials and the result was cast-iron pipes in the beginning of the 19th century. These new pipes were could maintain their integrity under intense pressure and were used in combination with another live changing invention, the steam engine. The dream of fresh, clean drinking water in the homes of each family was finally a reality.

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Water Works and Public Projects
The first water works in the United States was incorporated in Boston in 1962. Its primary purpose was the provide water for local fire departments and residential use. Fires were a common and persistent risk during these times. It was absolutely critical to the firefighters’ effectiveness and success to have a reliable source of pressurized water. The wooden piping system was made from hemlock trees and was over 15 miles long. While primitive by today’s standards, this water system was an invaluable tool to fire departments. Firefighters would punch a hole in the existing wooden line to gain access to the pressurized water. After the fire was out, they would plug the whole back up to restore pressure to the entire system.

Modernization of Cities
Wooden pipes continued to be used for centuries until pressure required to keep the system functioning was too great for the current material. Philadelphia was one of the first cities to use cast-iron piping and soon many cities followed suit. New York would go on to build over 40 miles of channel to bring water from the Crofton River to Manhattan. This abundant source of water helped New York modernize its public water distribution system to be a leader in the world during the middle of the 19th century. However, it was Chicago that grabbed newspaper headlines around the world with a revolutionary twin-tunnel system that drew from Lake Michigan, one of the largest fresh water lakes on the planet. The intake extended two miles out into the lake and led to a shaft in the city. This 138 foot tall standpipe, much like a modern day water tower, was responsible for equalizing pressure throughout Chicago. Steam engines powered by coal were used to pump 15 million gallons of water through the system.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans get their water from a city water system. This invention has provided us with drinking water in every household. However, water quality has been steadily deteriorating over the decades from causes like pollution and chemical contamination. Do you know what’s in you water? The EPA recommends testing your water supply at least once a year. Call Angel Water, Inc. at (847) 382-7800 to schedule a water testing today!

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