4.2 Water Supplies, Sewage and Plumbing
Plumbing is the system of pipes and drains installed in a building for the distribution of water for drinking, heating and washing, and the removal of waterborne wastes, and the skilled trade of working with pipes, tubing and plumbing fixtures in such systems. Plumbing is usually distinguished from water supply and sewage systems, in that a plumbing system serves one building, while water and sewage systems serve a group of buildings or a city.
Plumbing originated during ancient civilizations such as the Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, and Chinese cities as they developed public baths and needed to provide potable water and drainage of wastes, for larger numbers of people. Standardized earthen plumbing pipes with broad flanges making use of asphalt for preventing leakages appeared in the urban settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization by 2700 B.C. The Romans used lead pipe inscriptions to prevent water theft.
A new study indicates that the Maya were building pressurized pipes between about 450 and 750 AD, in Palenque, a major Mayan city in modern-day Mexico.
The famous Roman aqueducts supplied water to the town, the pipe used in siphons set in sections of 10 feet. The sections fit into a one-foot square block of stone servicing as an elbow, with connecting holes cut into the adjoining walls.
Water flowed continuously into a private home through a nozzle, the homeowner paying water rates according to the nozzle size. At the reservoir where the service pipe was attached, engineers installed a kind of ball float, resembling the modern type, to assure a reasonable steady flow of water. Each length of service pipe carried the subscriber’s name to prevent any un-paying freeloaders from tapping into his neighbor’s pipe.
The plumbers of Pompeii had a flourishing trade that included fashioning gutters of lead for the private homes. A Pompeiian house featured an atrium and open-roof design. Underneath a tank collected the rainwater which ran down from the roof tiles.
In Pompeii, this is how the plumber formed pipe: He poured molten lead into various sheets of thickness and dimension, and allowed them to cool. Then he shaped the sheets around a core of wood, leaving a V-shaped opening where the ends met. He fashioned a sand or clay mold around the channel, and poured hot lead into the opening. Typically the pipe was elliptical, or egg-shaped. According to present-day experts, the plumberium’s efforts were crude, but workable.
The plumber made connecting joints in a like manner. He flared one end of the pipe into a cone – like shape, and fit the adjoining piece of lead into it. He soldered the two pieces together with pure hot lead.
Even Old Roman galleys were outfitted with regular plumbing, especially the ones used by emperors. It’s reported that one old relic may have been used by Emperor Caligula for pleasure cruises. Expense unspared, it was outfitted with bronze pipe and ornaments, with running water provided in the lavish cabins.
Roman aqueducts brought water to Roman cities. Aqueducts were a combination of stone bridges, supported by arches, grade-level water beds and tunnels. The water flowed from a source often miles from a city to be stored in large cisterns underground, where it was accessible by the city’s inhabitants. The different sections of the aqueducts where all designed with one goal: to keep the same slight grade all the way from the water’s source to the city so the water would flow at an even pace and stay pure.
Roman Water Supply Bridge (Aqueduct). The Romans constructed aqueducts to bring a constant flow of water from distant sources into cities and towns, supplying public baths, latrines (public toilets), fountains and private households.
The Incan aqueducts refer to any of a series of aqueducts built by the Inca people. The Inca built such structures to increase arable land and provide drinking water and baths to the population. Due to water scarcity in the Andean region, advanced water management allowed the Inca to thrive and expand along much of the Pacific coast of South America. Such structures, some of which survive today, show the advanced hydraulic and civil engineering capabilities of the Inca.
The water came mostly from nearby rivers, but was also brought down from fresh water springs on mountiantops. The ancients have discovered that if they divert certain amounts of water from rivers, then they don’t have to worry about scarce rain and drought and they could also stimulate plants to grow faster by getting enough water in time.Workers dug tunnels through mountains and cut channels into cliffs to complete the project.
In seasons when too much mountain snow melted, the flood waters were carried to huge masonry reservoirs for storage, channeling water to their cities and religious centers
In pre-Columbian America, both the Incas and Aztecs channeled water to their cities and religious centers. The Incas built an elaborate system of aqueducts, some of cut stone, which wound through hills and valleys to bring water from the mountains. One of the Inca aqueducts leading from the highlands down to the sea was 360 miles (579 kilometers) long and 13 feet (4 meters) deep.
Tiwanaku is recognized by Andean scholars as one of the most important precursors to the Inca Empire, flourishing as the ritual and administrative capital of a major state power for approximately five hundred years. The ruins of the ancient city state are near the south-eastern shore of Lake Titicaca in the La Paz Department, Ingavi Province, Tiwanaku Municipality, about 72 km (44 miles) west of La Paz. Tiwanaku appears to have been a port city. However, Lake Titicaca, the only body of water, is almost 20 kilometers distant. There are piers and wharfs in Tiwanaku with long, straight calcium deposits that indicate prehistoric water lines, although they no longer lie in a horizontal plane, they are slanted.
Detail of ancient water pipe, at Tiwanaku
Image Source: Tim Hilliard Copyright 2001
Improvement in plumbing systems was very slow, with virtually no progress made from the time of the Roman system of aqueducts and lead pipes. Plumbing was extremely rare until the growth of modern densely-populated cities in the 1800s. During this period, public health authorities began pressing for better waste disposal systems to be installed, to prevent or control epidemics of disease. Earlier, the waste disposal system had merely consisted of collecting waste and dumping it on the ground or into a river. Eventually the development of separate, underground water and sewage systems eliminated open sewage ditches and cesspools.
Most large cities today pipe solid wastes to sewage treatment plants in order to separate and partly purify the water before emptying into streams or other bodies of water. For potable water use, galvanized iron piping was commonplace in the United States from the late 1800s until around 1960. After that period, copper piping took over, first soft copper with flared fittings, then with rigid copper tubing utilizing soldered fittings.
The use of lead for potable water declined sharply after World War II because of increased awareness of the dangers of lead poisoning. At this time, copper piping was introduced as a better and safer alternative to lead pipes.
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Subject Related Resources
Historian Peter James and archaeologist Nick Thorpe define the ancient period as the time before A.D. 1492, analyzing the evolution of inventions from brain surgery to playing cards, and putting into perspective the accomplishments of many diverse cultures while laying to rest some “distorted Western views of history.” — Denise Perry Donavin
You leave your seventh-floor apartment, curse the congested traffic that delays you, and stop at a fast-food restaurant on your way to have cataract surgery. You live in Rome in A.D. 25. Ancient Inventions entertainingly demonstrates that there is indeed little new under the sun. The book is divided by the authors (Centuries of Darkness, LJ 3/15/93) into convenient, browsable sections such as “Sex Life,” “Military Technology,” and “Communications,” each one presenting fascinating evidence of the extent to which human knowledge can be extinguished. Cute rather than hilarious in its humor, Ancient Inventions is thoroughly researched and profusely illustrated; it is doubtful that anyone could examine it without coming away enlightened in one of its broadly ranging areas. This work will be used as much for its historical information and accounts of ancient daily life as it will be for recreational reading. Historical First Patents is an overview of over 80 granted U.S. patent applications, with emphasis on the familiar: Howe, Whitney, Bell, and others whose names are closely associated with a specific device. Each entry consists of the historical developments leading to the invention, a biographical description of the inventor, and the story of the creation of the invention itself. A patent drawing accompanies most entries, although some contain a reproduction of the first page of the published patent in print so small as to be useless. The writing is rather stilted (Lincoln’s entry mentions three times in the first three paragraphs that he was the only president to receive a patent), and some obvious errors have not been caught. Some of the patents included here are for items discussed in Ancient Inventions and known thousands of years earlier, such as artificial limbs, cylinder locks, and anesthesia. Of the two books, Ancient Inventions contains information more difficult to locate elsewhere and will serve the broadest audience. Both books are appropriate for school, academic, and public libraries. — James Moffet, Baldwin P.L., Birmingham, Mich. Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
- Medieval Baghdad had an efficient postal service, banks, and a paper mill.
- Rudimentary calendars were being used in France as early as 13,000 B.C.
- Apartment condominiums rose in deserts of the American Southwest a thousand years ago.
- The ancient Greeks used an early form of computer.
- Plastic surgery was being performed in India by the first century B.C.
- The Egyptians knew about effective contraceptives.
- Flamethrowers were used in battles waged in tenth-century China.
“This presentation of the discoveries and innovations of the ancients will fascinate.” –Booklist