The industrial revolution and the origins of modern sanitation

Daniel Gallardo Albarrán. Show Author details

Fairmount Waterworks in 1835
Fairmount Waterworks in 1835

One of the key goals of the international development agenda is to promote healthy lives through universal access to sanitary services (see here).  Safe water and sanitation, among other essentials, play an important role in curtailing the transmission of fecal-oral diseases, such as diarrhea, which still exact a high toll on some populations. Centralized systems of piped water provision and waste disposal through sewers are more modern than many think and their origins, as I will argue here, are closely related to the blessings and curses unleashed by the industrial revolution during the 19th century.

The industrial revolution, directly and indirectly, set in motion three processes that radically transformed the urban landscape of Europe and North America since the late 19th century: a paradigm shift in perspectives on public health, an increasing demand for water and sanitation, and the invention of new technologies applicable to urban infrastructures. I elaborate on these below.

Medicine blames the environment for the spread of disease

Industrialization and rapid population growth became an increasing source of concern during the 1820s and 1830s. Deadly epidemics, such as cholera, wreaked havoc and instilled fear among both the working classes and elites. Established notions regarding the origins of disease came under scrutiny, prompting the medical field to refined its very imperfect epidemiological knowledge. In their search for the source of disease, doctors shifted their focus from the individual, who was often blamed for her morals and habits, to the natural environment and factors beyond the control of citizens, such as residency or social class (see here). 

How did ideas about disease causation change? A crucial development was the use of data collection as a tool to compile empirical facts and generate hypotheses that could be subsequently tested with different theories. A compelling example is the work of Louis René Villermé, a French physician that became interested in social epidemiology. He conducted an important study in 1828 to determine the underlying causes of mortality differentials among districts in Paris, employing correlation techniques. Across the English channel, Edwin Chadwick published a report in 1842 that resonated with public health officials across Europe and North America. His report highlighted the poor sanitary conditions endured by English workers and called for greater attention to environmental factors. Chadwick’s proposal included the construction of complex networks of pipes and sewers to deliver clean water and efficiently dispose waste. The idea that human intervention and sanitary reform could enhance public health gradually began to permeate different layers of society. For instance, France and Germany later committed to promote public health via state regulation and funding. 

Certainly, we should not overstate the reach and influence of novel ideas about disease diffusion, since there was substantial debate and disagreement among sanitarians and medical experts at the time. However, it is undeniable that there was a growing feeling among communities during the 19th century that they were in charge of their health prospects. In this narrative, the civil engineer, armed with novel waterworks and sewerage systems, emerged as a doctor that could cure the ills of the city.

Escalating demand for water and sanitation 

The industrial revolution increased the need for water and sanitation services. As previously mentioned, industrialization was accompanied, and fueled, by population growth. Burgeoning urban populations placed increasing pressure on traditional systems of water provision that struggled to meet these new requirements, such as wells, rivers or lakes. Compounding this issue, these water sources often became contaminated by the mounting volumes of human waste that piled up within the expanding cities. Next to consumption for drinking purposes, water was needed to combat fires, which became more risky due to the uncontrolled expansion of cities and slums. Traditional sources of water were not enough in big cities, as illustrated by the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842, when the flames ravaged for 3 days and nights. Lastly, emerging industrial businesses required large amounts of clean and soft water for cooling steam engines various textile production processes.

Addressing these three urban  challenges required the implementation of large-scale centralized infrastructures that connected individual households and factories with pipe and sewer networks. These pioneering systems were capable of moving unprecedented volumes of water and waste throughout the city, thereby accommodating the burgeoning demand. The cities of Boston and Chicago are illustrative of this trend: residents increased their daily consumption from about 100 gallons per capita in 1880 to 200 gallons in 1905, respectively. 

Advances in urban infrastructure technology 

Centralized water supply and sewerage have been available for hundreds of years, but their capacity was rather low. Innovations stemming from the industrial revolution changed this. Steam engines boosted the efficiency of water pumping stations, previously powered by river currents or horses, to unprecedented levels. Early technologies were clunky and inefficient, but over the course of the 19th century their productivity increased dramatically (see here for a nice historical account of this process). Also, the adoption of iron and lead pipes, replacing wood, could handle escalating levels of water pressure. In the realm of waste management, the surging volumes of water flowing to cities were harnessed to carry away urban waste by linking water closets with sewers. This was an enormous improvement over earlier unsafe methods to store fecal matter, such as cesspits, privies or pail closets. 

Sewerage pipe being laid out in Australia in 1920

It is important to note that early water supply and sewerage systems were far from perfect and they could even pose a threat to public health, as the case of Hamburg shows (see here). Nevertheless, their safety steadily improved through the implementation of filtration and chemical disinfection of water and waste. The development of these techniques can also, at least indirectly, be traced back to the wave of technological innovation unleashed by the industrial revolution.

Is a sanitary revolution possible without an industrial revolution?

The answer to this question is negative, but it requires some nuanced clarification. The industrial revolution was necessary to trigger the urban sanitary transformation underwent in Europe and North America since the late 19th century. It offered an efficient technical solution capable of meeting the increasing urban demands for drinking water, firefighting resources, and support for industrial production. At the same time, industrialization in itself was not sufficient for sanitary reform. A fundamental shift in the conceptualization and understanding of disease causation was needed. This shift, in turn, encouraged local politicians to commit substantial resources to the construction of expensive waterworks and sewerage systems throughout a country. Of course, this process was fraught with difficulties and marked by periods of progress and regression, but that is a subject that deserves another post.

Further information:

  • The associated image of this post can be found here.
  • This post is based on an article by the author entitled ‘The Global Sanitary Revolution in Historical Perspective’ (link forthcoming).


Author details

Assistant Professor (WUR)