“Sanitation is a human right—everyone is entitled to access to sanitation services that provide privacy and ensure dignity and safety.”
State of the World’s Sanitation, WHO and UNICEF, 2020
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2017, two billion people still did not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines, and at least 10% of the world’s population was thought to consume food irrigated by wastewater. Inadequate sanitation is estimated to cause 432,000 diarrheal deaths annually and is a major factor in several neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, and trachoma. Poor sanitation also contributes to malnutrition. The world’s sanitation problems are not going away and technological advancements to deliver sanitation are desperately needed.
I thought about these sobering statistics as I processed the Rudolph Hering Collection in the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. This small-but-rich collection consists primarily of printed publications and some maps, charts, trade literature, and photographs that document Rudolph Hering’s (1847–1923) and others’ work on waste disposal, drainage, water flow, sanitary and hydraulic engineering, and municipal sewage systems in the United States and other countries.
Hering was a rock star of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century civil engineering scene, and his contributions to, and focus on, sanitary engineering is well documented. Born in Philadelphia, his father was Dr. Constantine Hering, a physician, and one of the early pioneers of homeopathy in the United States. Young Hering was educated in Dresden, Germany, where he graduated from the Royal Saxon Polytechnic Institute in 1867 with a degree in civil engineering. He returned to the United States and worked as a leveler in Brooklyn for C. C. Martin, chief engineer of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge. From 1869 to 1872, Hering worked as an assistant engineer in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, under J. C. Cresson, but left Philadelphia the same year to join the first topography survey of Yellowstone National Park, working under geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden. From 1873–1874, Hering was a resident engineer for the Girard Street Bridge in Philadelphia and later became an assistant engineer (1875–1880) for various Philadelphia municipal construction projects, notably bridges and sewers.
To prevent the spread of contagious diseases in the United States, Hering was commissioned from May 10, 1880 to May 25, 1881 by the National Board of Health to investigate European sewage practices. His report included a discussion comparing dry removal and water carriage systems; he endorsed the water carriage system for the United States, a method for the disposal of wastes in which water carries the wastes from the point of production to the point of treatment for final disposal. Depending on conditions determined by the geographic location of a city, Hering advocated for a combination of systems. Combined systems—in which a single pipe conveyed household waste and stormwater—were best for large cities, while separate systems—in which two separate pipes conveyed household waste and stormwater—were best for small cities.
The Rudolph Hering Collection at the museum also contains writings by fellow engineers George E. Waring Jr. (1833–1898) and George W. Fuller (1868–1934), who also made considerable contributions to the field of sanitation. But lesser-known names, such as the Decarie brothers, Felix, Alexander, and Louis (Decarie Incinerating Company), Karl Imhoff (Imhoff tanks), Leopold F. Scholz (Scholz Dust-Proof Sanitary Garbage Wagon) and Isaac Smead (Smead and Company), also provide insight into the myriad inventors and inventions related to sanitation in the early twentieth century.
Not surprisingly, missing in Hering’s collection is documentation about or authored by Ellen H. Swallows Richards (1842–1911), a chemist and pioneer in the history of sanitation. Richards, the first woman to graduate from MIT (1873), helped establish the Women’s Laboratory at MIT (1876) and was appointed an instructor in the MIT sanitary engineering program in 1890. Richards was also responsible for the Massachusetts State Board of Health survey of water supplies that began in 1887. Richards played an important role in that survey as the supervisor of the chemical laboratory analyzing the water and in the creation of a “normal chlorine” map of Massachusetts state water supplies. She wrote several books: Air, Water, and Food from a Sanitary Standpoint, in collaboration with Alpheus G. Woodman; The Cost of Living as Modified by Sanitary Science; and The Cost of Cleanness.
Prior to 1850, few, if any, United States cities had a regular system of sewage disposal that would remove household liquids and human excrement. The industrial revolution in the United States resulted in increased urbanization, population growth, health issues, pollution, overcrowding, noise, and garbage. There was a need for sources of clean water and sewage removal because “they affected citizens collectively and were vital for good health” (Melosi, Garbage in the Cities, page 20). Garbage problems in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were enormous; the rise and professionalization of sanitary engineers like Hering would begin to help address these issues. At the same time, patenting was increasing for processes related to sanitation.
In his book, Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem, Daniel Schneider devotes an entire chapter, “Public v. Private: Nature Must be Circumvented,” to the examination of the sewage patent controversies and the questions of whether sewage treatment belonged to the public or private sector, and whether or not sewage was natural or artificial. Sewage patents were eventually ruled valid in the United States, leading to lengthy litigation by engineers and municipalities who fought against the commercialization and patenting of sanitation engineering processes. Many engineers who worked for public organizations felt that sewage treatment processes belonged to the public.
While Hering never patented his work, he and C. W. Chancellor (a doctor with the Maryland State Board of Health) criticized engineer George Waring and his patents, claiming that they were based on principles of sewer construction that were already known and used. Hering felt that “patenting sewage was inherently too variable to submit to a patented treatment scheme" (Schneider, page 63). A city’s geography and population differed so greatly that no one sewage system fit all and could cure all problems. Sewage was a local issue—something that Hering factored into his evaluations when consulting and recommending systems (Melosi, Sanitary Cities, page 159).
Other invention stories found in the Hering Collection include:
Leopold F. Scholz (1877–1946)
Leopold Scholz, a native of Austria who emigrated to New York City in 1908, worked as a self-employed sculptor (best known for his works in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the US Capitol). He patented a “Refuse Wagon” (US Patent 1,026,465) in 1912 that handled the dust problem plaguing many city streets. Scholz’s patent model demonstrated how his invention worked—the wagon could hold full cans of any size, and it could be tipped for ease of unloading. The wagon came in three options: for one-horse loads, two-horse loads, or as a motor truck.
The Decarie Brothers: Feilx Louis (1859-1935); Louis A. R. (1881-1937), and Alexander S. (b. 1882)
The Decarie brothers of Montreal, Canada, formed the Decarie Incinerator Company of Minneapolis in 1908 and patented a few steam-generated incinerators, comprised of a main furnace with two sets of grates, an extension furnace, and a gas consuming furnace, for trash and dead animals (US Patent 951,905, US Patent 1,065,864, and US Patent 1,125,976). Advertisements boasted that “any ordinary mechanic can make repairs, every drop of liquid is evaporated, every atom of garbage is burned; every particle of odor is destroyed; and every function is perfectly sanitary.” (Pacific Municipalities, November 30, 1910, page 190).
Isaac D. Smead (1849-1909)
Isaac Smead, an inventor from Cincinnati, Ohio, invented dry closets, crematories, heaters, a ventilation system, furnaces, a radiator, a grate, a wood pipe, a moveable roadway (Smead’s Rolling Road), a bike stand, and a cable traction. Smead founded and was full or partial owner of several companies, including Smead Dowd Warming and Ventilating Company; Smead, Wills and Company; Smead and Company; and Smead Foundry Company. His patents were manufactured under the name American Foundry and Furnace Company.
Canadian Henry Ruttan (1792–1871) patented several ventilating, heating, and cooling devices between 1846 and 1858 that would become known as the “Ruttan System.” Smead studied Ruttan’s work and eventually purchased his patents and combined them with Benjamin R. Hawley’s patents, which he also purchased, and called it the “Ruttan Smead System.” Smead ultimately overextended himself financially and filed for bankruptcy in the late 1890s, the largest bankruptcy case ever filed at that time. There was also widespread opposition to his Smead system of dry closets (a toilet containing no water, in which earth or ashes were added to the excrement after each use), which were declared to be unsanitary and dangerous by many state health boards and plumbers (Plumbers Trade Journal, page 366).
Karl Imhoff (1876–1965)
In 1906, German engineer Karl Imhoff patented the Emscherbrunnen, a circular tank designed to separate solids from wastewater. It would become known as the “Imhoff tank.” Imhoff contracted with the Pacific Flush Tank Company of Chicago to manufacture his tanks in the United States and, in 1920, entered into an agreement to assign his patents (US Patent 924,664, US Patent 978.889, US Patent 1,057,154, US Patent 1.053,396, and US Patent 1,056,548) to the company (Miller, page 992). The system was so successful that Imhoff tanks comprised nearly half the total treatment works in the US by the end of the 1930s and some are still in use today (Lens, page 23).
Continued collaboration between engineers, health officials, scientists, inventors, and the public at large is needed as sanitation issues in the twenty-first century continue to persist.
Visit the Archives Center to discover more about Rudolph Hering and other inventors’ stories.
American Society of American Engineers. https://www.asce.org/about-civil-engineering/history-and-heritage/notable-civil-engineers/ellen-henrietta-swallow-richards. Accessed August 19, 2021.
Civil Engineer Membership Forms, 1818–1930. London, UK: Institution of Civil Engineers, March 17, 1883.
Melosi, Martin V. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
Melosi, Martin V. The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Sanitary_City/NXnX4KkV00YC?hl=en&gbpv=1
Piet Lens, Grietje Zeeman, and Gatze Lettinga, eds. Integrated Environmental Technology Series. Decentralised Sanitation and Reuse. Concepts, Systems, and Implementation. London: IWA Publishing, 2000.
The Plumbers’ Trade Journal, Gas, Steam, and Hot Water Fitters’ Review, December 1898.
Miller, T.W. Report of the Alien Property Custodian: Letter from the Alien Property Custodian Transmitting in Response to a Senate Resolution of January 5, 1922, Certain Information as to the Names of Persons Connected with the Administration of the Property Seized or Demanded Since the Passage of the Resolution Declaring a State of Peace to Exist with Germany, 1922.
Ellen Swallow Richards, MC-0659, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries, Department of Distinctive Collections.
Ellen H. Swallow Richards. Chemistry in History (undated). http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/chemistry-in-history/themes/public-and-environmental-health/public-health-and-safety/richards-e.aspx). Accessed August 30, 2021.
Schneider, Daniel. Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem. Boston: MIT Press, 2011.