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  • Writer's pictureTim Coyne

How the Theft of a Water Pump Handle Sparked the Birth of Modern Water Treatment


1854 London, a cholera outbreak in London was claiming thousands of lives. At the time, there was no known cause for cholera, but there were many theories about what might be causing the disease. Some people believed that it was caused by miasma, or bad air, while others thought it was caused by a moral or spiritual failing.


Although John Snow, a British physician, lived in this gilded Victorian-era of London, he saw Cholera, which claimed thousands of lives within hours of infection, as unacceptable. He was one of the few physicians who suspected that cholera was caused by something in the water supply. He had studied the disease in his medical training and had noticed that it tended to be more common in areas with poor sanitation and contaminated water. Snow decided to investigate the outbreak of cholera that year.


Snow began his investigation by creating a map of the areas of London where the cholera outbreak was most severe. He plotted the locations of all the reported cases of cholera on the map and noticed that they were concentrated in a particular area of the city. Snow believed that this concentration of cases was not a coincidence and began to investigate further.


He visited the homes of people who had contracted cholera and asked them about their daily routines. He discovered that many of them were getting their water from a particular pump on Broad Street. Snow believed that the pump was the source of the outbreak and suggested that it be shut down.


At the time, Snow's theory was met with skepticism by many people, including the local authorities. They believed that the cause of cholera was miasma and that shutting down the pump would not have any effect. Undeterred, Snow took a bold step. On September 8, 1854, he removed the pump handle from the Broad Street pump, effectively shutting it down. The move was controversial, but it proved to be effective. The number of new cholera cases in the area dropped dramatically, providing compelling evidence that contaminated water was indeed the cause of the outbreak.


Before Snow's discovery, water treatment was virtually nonexistent. Public water supplies were often contaminated with human waste, causing the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid fever. The lack of effective treatment methods was a major barrier to public health, leading to frequent epidemics and high mortality rates.


Snow's work brought attention to the need for clean water, leading to significant improvements in water treatment technology. One of the key innovations was the use of filtration to remove impurities from water sources. This technique was first used on a large scale in London's water supply system in the late 19th century, leading to a significant reduction in waterborne diseases.


Another major innovation was the use of chlorine to disinfect water. This method was first proposed in the early 20th century, and by the 1920s, it had become a widely accepted method for treating water. Chlorination revolutionized the water treatment industry, leading to dramatic improvements in public health.


Today, modern water treatment methods are more sophisticated than ever before. Water is typically treated with a combination of physical, chemical, and biological processes to ensure that it is free of harmful contaminants. These methods include coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection.


Today, we at Sterling value John Snow's work and continue to build on his legacy of keeping citizens safe of waterborne diseases and investing in new chemical technologies. If you are interested in our newest chemical treatments or are just looking for the tried and true methods of chemical treatment please reach out to our treatment specialists on the contact page.

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