About this Article
Written by: Boniface Kinnear
Written on: May 3rd, 2003
Tags: biomedical engineering, civil engineering, environmental engineering
Thumbnail by: US Department of Agriculture/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
During the spring of 2003, Boniface was an engineering student at the University of Southern California.
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Volume V Issue II > Wastewater Technology: Engineering a Healthier Society
Long before the age of computers, light bulbs, automobiles, or locomotives, a revolutionary feat in engineering transformed society. This technology almost singly separates developed countries from their developing counterparts, and many Americans take it for granted. Rarely do we ever think about it when we use it, and when we do, it's generally because it has broken down. Most of us probably care not to think about it too much. To garner a greater appreciation for this technology, imagine not having access to a toilet, a drain, or portable water. Such reflections highlight the importance of sewage systems and treatment facilities in our lives. They may be the most important engineering development in modern society.


Technology for piping away human waste has its origins as far back as 4000 BCE. Archeological evidence suggests that pipes to carry waste existed in the Babylonian empire, as well as in the primitive sewage systems of Scotland. The crowning achievement of water management in ancient times was the Roman sewer system, which employed artificially constructed drains to carry sewage away from major cities [1]. Later, during the dark ages, governments reverted to disposal methods that didn't control or treat the flow of wastes in any significant way [1]. Widespread mismanagement of waste continued into the middle ages and led to massive plague outbreaks, contaminated water supplies, and numerous deaths [1].
As cities grew progressively larger, conditions became so poor that European royalty set forth decrees requiring people to meet minimum sanitary standards. However, such decrees were largely ineffective in stemming the flow of raw sewage in the streets. It eventually became obvious that cities needed to rid their wastes in a more sanitary manner. Hence, the construction of first modern sewer system in the world began in Hamburg, Germany in 1840 [1. After a fire destroyed much of the town, the residents redesigned the city to their liking. Because of their distaste for waste, they included sanitation in their plans.
After Hamburg's success with waste management, people began to understand how important sewage systems were to public health. Paris, London, and Berlin created their own sewage systems. However, treatment of sewage was still minimal, as were methods for transporting waste. Thomas Crapper's invention of the toilet, along with other innovations, necessitated the creation of more advanced waste treatment and conveyance systems. In the early twentieth century, cities began to treat their waste, but more rural areas still had little or no sanitation. The only major treatment program in effect was the conversion of waste into fertilizer for agriculture. The rest of the untreated sewage was flushed in riverbeds and streams, contaminating the water supply.
Since then, many sanitation technologies have been developed to deal with sewage thanks to advances in environmental engineering. Two principal methods are urban sewer systems and septic tanks. Simply put, these solutions provide a centralized (sewer) and decentralized (septic) solution to human sanitation woes.