Today, small town sewer systems like sanitary sewer easements in Milford MI work the same way as large systems in a place like New York City.

Although today’s citizens are accustomed to the simple waste disposal and water transport afforded by robust underground sewer systems, living in the city wasn’t always so simple.

Ancient Drainage

Primitive toilets can be traced back to 3000 BCE in Skara Brae, Scotland but the first evidence of large-scale urban sanitation dates to approximately 2500 BCE in Indus Valley Civilization of South Asia. There, remnants of a well-constructed network of private and public brick drains and reservoirs can be found.

In this rudimentary system, homes had their own private toilet that emptied into public drains located on the side of the street. Liquid waste flowed to large cesspools resembling modern septic tanks where it was eventually released into nearby waterways. Since materials such as concrete and PVC weren’t available, terra-cotta and stone were used for pipes and manhole covers.

The first underground clay pipes were developed in ancient Greece. Republican Rome expanded on that technology with indoor plumbing. Aqueducts constructed of stone and concrete brought water into the city from as far away as thirty miles. Lead pipes supplied water to public baths and water fountains. Terra-cotta drainage systems transported human waste as well as storm water.

Greece adopted the aqueduct system shortly thereafter but used lead and bronze pipe for water delivery. Their system also relied more on underground tunnels than the Roman system of arches. Sewers transported storm water and human waste from the cities to a basin that fed brick pipes for crop irrigation.

The public sewer system wasn’t directly connected to homes until during the time of the Roman Empire, around 100 AD. Waste was largely thrown into the street where it washed into the open drainage than ran through the city. At the time, most people used a public bathroom that was connected directly to the city system. Waste water flowed continuously under the public toilets and terminated in the nearby Tiber River.

The first closed sewer system wouldn’t be constructed until the late 1300s.

Entering the Modern Age

A closed sewer system was designed to combat the rampant odor that permeated cities during that time. The first systems involved little more than capping the top of the existing above-ground drainage-ways. It wasn’t until a series of cholera and typhoid outbreaks in the mid-1800s that sanitation became a consideration and the old models of public drainage were changed everywhere.

Britain was the first country to construct the clean underground odorless sewer system we’re familiar with today. The project was extensive; some 450 miles main sewer lines intersected with 13,000 miles of smaller lines to transport waste to the Thames Estuary where River Thames met the North Sea. That original design by Joseph Bazalgette serves as the foundation for today’s systems.

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