The Fascinating History of Water Purification Inventions

Making our water safe to drink has been a centuries-long journey.

In developed countries all over the world, people have access to safe drinking water. It wasn’t always that way, though, and water was a frequent cause of disease. Where water isn’t purified, those same diseases still run rampant.

Have you wondered where the science came from to give us consistent access to safe water? Here we take a look at some of the most important water purification inventions and how water purification has evolved.

What Is Water Purification and How Does It Work?

Water purification is the act of taking an existing water source and removing harmful contaminants from it. There are many ways this can be accomplished, including chemical processing and physical filters. For the purest water, most people end up using a combination of these methods.

Most developed countries have areas that use a municipal water source. This water has gone through a large-scale treatment plant and meets established safety standards. It’s considered ready to drink and is frequently tested to ensure it’s meeting regulations.

Even in developed countries, not everyone has access to municipal water sources and uses a well water source instead. If this is the case, you’ll need to treat your well directly or treat the water as it enters your home before you consume it. This will prevent giardia, E.coli, heavy metals, and other contaminants from remaining in the water and being consumed.

The History of Water Purification

Are you interested in seeing just how the approach to clean water has changed? Here’s the background of how our modern water purification has evolved.

Early Purification

We may be tempted to think that water purification is a relatively new thing. After all, we’re making technological and scientific advancements every year that make it easier to purify water. The truth, though, is that people have been purifying drinking water for thousands of years.

Reaching back to 2000 B.C., ancient writings indicate that treating drinking water was recommended and even common practice. People were aware that some degree of purification could be had by heating water. They were also proficient in using filtration for sediment, utilizing both sand and gravel filters to reduce impurities.

Now, we likely think of purifying water for safety reasons first. In these ancient times, though, little was known about those microscopic organisms that could cause illness. Instead, the primary motivation for filtering water was to have a better-tasting beverage.

The First Chemical Treatments

Around 1500 B.C., coagulation first came into play (1). This process helped remove solid particles from the water and was first discovered and implemented by the Ancient Egyptians. Archeologists have even found artwork depicting the process on the tomb walls of Ramses II and Amenophis II.

With physical and chemical filtering established, the process became more sophisticated and usable. By 500 B.C., Hippocrates had discovered how important water was to the human body, both to remain healthy and to heal from injury and illness. During this time, he invented the Hippocratic sleeve, the first bag filter (2).

Large Scale Water Systems

As the scientific understanding of cleansing water increased, people became more focused on having access to safe drinking water. Between 200 and 300 B.C., Rome began to build its aqueducts. During this time, Archimedes also invented the water screw.

Both the inventions of Hippocrates and Archimedes would go on to reshape water consumption as we know it.


Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard
Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard, France

We often think of the aqueducts as belonging squarely to the Ancient Romans. Their incredible structure has made them a landmark for centuries. Before they were something we snapped photos of, they were a highly functional system designed to move water from place to place (3).

However, we should make sure to give credit where it’s due. The very first aqueduct structure was built several hundred years earlier, during 700 B.C. by the Assyrians. This structure was nearly 33 feet high and almost 1,000 feet long. It allowed water to move across 50 miles and through the Nineveh valley (4).

It wasn’t until the Romans began building aqueducts that they acquired this name, combining the words that mean “to lead” and “water.” The aqueduct infrastructure is extensive, covering nearly 250 miles through 11 different aqueducts. The entire system took 500 years to build.

We’ve improved on those early aqueduct systems, but many of those ancient approaches and techniques are still in use today.

Archimedes’ Screw

The Archimedes screw
The Archimedes screw, used to transport water from lower water bodies to higher land.

The aqueducts relied on gravity to make water transportation possible. During the same time that the Romans were building the aqueducts, the influential Archimedes was creating inventions of his own. One of these inventions was designed to move water from lower elevations up to higher elevations and is called the water screw.

Though we’ve learned how to apply this screw differently, it’s still very much in use today. You’ll find the concept applied to many modern industrial pumps.

The Dark Ages and Beyond

Though great leaps were made with water treatment early on, as we entered the Dark Ages (500–1500 A.D.), progress stopped. This is known as a period with little scientific growth. The result is that the next major step in water purification didn’t happen until the 1600s.

During this time, experiments with desalination began. This started with Sir Francis Bacon in 1627 (5). Those early experiments focused on seaweed and the ability to remove salt particles through sand filtration. While they were unsophisticated and unsuccessful, these attempts did set the stage for the next water purification breakthroughs.

By 1676, we’d developed microscopes strong enough to see and study microorganisms in the water. Not long after that, in 1700, we first began using crude filters constructed of wool, charcoal, and sponge.

In Scotland in 1804, the first water treatment plant designed to supply a city with water was designed and built (6). Though this water treatment plant created fresh water for a large number of people, it didn’t bring the water to them. Instead, the water was delivered via cart and horse. It wasn’t until three years after the treatment plant was first completed that pipes were installed.

50 years later, in 1854, it was first discovered that cholera was transmitted through contaminated water (7). Though the water tasted and smelled fine, it wasn’t safe to drink. This helped people understand “good” water was more than looks and taste alone.

Once the source of the contamination was discovered, the water was treated with chlorine, giving us one of the first instances of water disinfection. By the late 1800s, we were building large sand filters to provide safe drinking water, paving the way for modern water purification inventions.

The progress didn’t stop just because we’d reached the turn of the century, and in 1903, the first water softener was made. Not too long after that, in 1914, drinking water standards were first established (8). By 1940, those standards extended to municipal water sources.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed, and in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act (9). The arrival of reverse osmosis in the 1980s gave us one more way to make healthy drinking water available to everyone. With our understanding of water purification firmly in place, we were ready to combine technology with our modern needs.

Modern Water Purification Inventions

The history of water purification gives us a great place to start when looking at our modern water systems. Every day, we’re making incredible scientific leaps in our ability to purify water.

Here are some of the most recent modern water purification inventions.

1. LifeStraw

This product is designed to bring you safe drinking water, wherever you are. There’s no need for bulky equipment because a single drinking straw is capable of filtering your water. They’re available in steel or plastic models and allow you to drink directly from a natural water source without worrying about contaminants.

Available in several styles to best suit your needs, these products rely on their hollow fiber membrane to trap contaminants. Water moves through easily, but sediment and contaminants are left behind. Some of their models even offer multi-stage filtration.

2. The Watercone

Intended to allow anyone affordable access to safe water, this purifier can be used anywhere. It’s self-supporting and can be stacked with other units. Solar-powered, it’s an excellent option for areas where electricity isn’t readily available.

This purifier is straightforward to use. Place your unfiltered water in the bottom of the black pan and then place the clear cone on top. The black tray attracts the heat and encourages evaporation to take place. Condensation forms on the inside of the cone, and then drips down into a special collection area that’s separate from the base.

There’s no need to worry about transferring the water after it’s been filtered. Simply flip the cone lid upside down and unscrew the top to allow easy transfer to a drinking glass.

3. The Cycloclean

Using the bicycle as its basis, this product purifies water as you pedal. It’s the perfect option for remote areas or in an emergency, having limited access to safe water or electricity. No specialized knowledge or skills are needed to operate the cycloclean — it’s literally as simple as riding a bike.

Another perk to this unit is that it’s capable of processing a large amount of water in a short period. In just an hour, the Cycloclean can provide 150 people with safe drinking water. Four filters are used to ensure drinking water is of the highest quality.

4. LifeSack

Capable of purifying water nearly anywhere, this product is easy to use. Fill it with water, and your purifier can get to work. You can wear it for convenient transportation, and while you’re doing so, its exposure to sunlight begins to disinfect the water.

While the UV light is at work, there are also filters built into the sack. These screen out harmful microorganisms, sediment, and debris. Between the two kinds of filtering, you’re left with delicious, safe-to-drink water, no matter how remote your location is.

5. Hippo Water Roller Project

Worldwide, people spend an incredible amount of time retrieving water and bringing it to their homes. This is frequently accomplished by balancing large containers on top of heads, balancing heavy buckets across shoulders or trudging along with containers in hand.

An innovative product, the Hippo Water Roller works to make acquiring water easier. It’s also suitable for agricultural needs, with an irrigation system built into the unit. Fill the container, and it rolls easily to its destination.

This is a fantastic way to get clean water from a faraway location back to an area that needs it. And for those that don’t have access to clean water even at a distance? These Hippo Water Rollers have successfully been outfitted with affordable filtering capabilities as well (10).

6. The SlingShot

The man behind the Segway transporter invented this revolutionary product that’s capable of producing 30 gallons of safe drinking water every hour. Impressively, it’s able to do that using only the amount of energy it takes to operate a handheld hairdryer.

Using the power of distillation, the SlingShot brings water to the boil to remove impurities. While distillation isn’t a new technique, being able to achieve the process on limited energy is. By using a closed-loop energy system, this machine can provide high-quality distilled water without using a tremendous amount of energy.

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It’s able to make 1,000 liters of drinkable water in a single day. The high capacity and low running and purchase costs can make it a viable solution for many towns experiencing a water crisis.

7. Hydrologic Ceramic Water Filters

Being a silver-impregnated ceramic water purifier, this product can remove 99.9 percent of water impurities. It’s manufactured in Cambodia using local resources, contributing to the local economy while creating the opportunity for clean water. These filters rely on gravity and work in traditional filtration fashion, providing between 1 and 3 liters of processed water an hour.

Designed to be used in specific filtering units, the included silver helps kill any bacteria present. Each unit is designed to hold 12 liters of water, and new water can be added before the compartment’s been fully emptied. A secure top helps prevent the recontamination of the water from airborne contaminants.

8. LUV Water Bottle

The traditional water bottle shape and design of this filter bottle makes it easy to use and bring anywhere. It uses built-in LED UV lights to create UV filtration and eradicate bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants in the water. An attached, external chamber converts energy from the water to power the UV lights, making it a fully contained system.

Available at an affordable price point, this is a product that can bring safe drinking water to virtually anyone, anywhere.

9. Direct Contact Membrane Desalination

Capable of producing 21 gallons of water a day, this system allows for efficient processing of ocean water. It’s able to produce twice as much drinkable water from seawater as traditional desalination methods.

To work, this process does need access to constant heat. A plastic membrane filled with small tubes allows for the transfer of water. The water vapor is able to travel where needed while the salt remains behind, leaving you with drinkable water.

Though traditional desalination approaches are expensive and require extensive systems, this development promises to change the industry’s landscape. With this technology, cheaper, more efficient desalination may be on the horizon.

10. Herbal Defluoridation

A recent discovery has herbs front and center for creating safe drinking water.

A long-used Indian herb is capable of removing fluoride from water. Though fluoride can be found naturally in water and may be used as an additive, it’s not always present at an acceptable level.

Using herbs that are easy and inexpensive to grow to make drinking water safe can lead to a healthier population. Those drinking water with high levels of fluoride may experience damage to the brain and thyroid (11).

Fluoride Isn’t All Bad

Be sure to consult a medical professional when deciding on balancing the health implications of fluoride. It’s included in toothpaste to prevent tooth decay (12).

Water’s History Isn’t Entirely Behind Us

It’s so tempting to think we’ve learned all there is to know about water and making it safe to drink. That’s not the case, though. Every day, we’re learning new techniques and establishing new methods for creating and distributing healthy drinking water.

These water purification inventions have made an incredible difference for communities around the world. Before too long, not having access to safe drinking water will be a thing of the past that we can add to our history books.

Headshot of Sylvia Jones

About the Author

Sylvia Jones

Sylvia Jones is a hands-on, DIY aficionado from Indiana. She is passionate about home improvement, gardening, and environmental conservation. In her spare time, you can find Sylvia getting involved in home improvement projects around the house with her husband, or spending quality time out in the yard.