Pipes - ancient/early types (1)
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge image)

Mohenjo-Daro, a town of 35,000 in the Indus River Valley (southern Pakistan), is considered by many historians to be the birthplace of sewers. Beginning around 3500 BCE, drains made of cut stone or man-made masonry units, initially open topped but later covered, were developed and became the prototype of many surface drains used throughout the ancient world – the
forerunners of pipe. The birth of pipe occurred at about the same time in Babylon (Iraq) – sun-cured (and later baked) terra cotta pipe made on wooden mandrels, with bell and spigot joints.

The idea of sewers and pipes spread far and wide over the next few thousand years – into Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The Roman Empire particularly had an extensive system of cut-stone sewers and developed the use of circular lead pipes for water. Their overuse of lead is thought to have contributed to their shortened life expectancies.

The Dark and Middle Ages saw a drastic decline in sanitation. Though cast iron pipe was used as early as the 1600s in France, generally pipes were crudely made in this period. After several plagues swept across Europe, Paris was one of the first cities to set about creating a comprehensive sewer system. From the 1860s to the 1890s, the Parisians built a sewer under almost every street – nearly 400 km in all. Their sewers incorporated many new ideas: low flow channels; sidewalks for sewer men; unique devices to clean the sewers, including boats; and the placement of other utility mains inside sewers.

Horrific sanitation conditions in London led to construction of a new sewer system in the 1860s. Egg-shaped sewers and “separate” sewers (no storm water) were developed in England. The new concepts spread rapidly throughout Europe. Typically, large sewers were built of brick or cut stone, the smaller ones of clay, cast iron or wood.

In the United States, cholera and other diseases became a problem after the Civil War, and the first generation of American civil engineers looked to England and Europe for solutions. The first new separate sanitary sewer system was in Memphis, Tennessee, initially using 6” ID clay pipe (no manholes), and later 8” ID (with manholes). Clay became the dominant pipe material for a time across the U.S., and clay pipe factories rose throughout the United States. Many other materials were in use as well, including wood, cast iron and concrete. In the early 1900s, the patented Parmley System promoted the approach of assembling segmental blocks in the trench. It proved strong but susceptible to failure of whole sections.

The availability of wood and the re-training of carpenters/furniture makers, etc., facilitated the use of wood for water and sewer pipe, though sewage and wood did not work well together because of the adverse effects of the sulfides and sulfuric acid common to sewage. The simplest wood pipes were hollowed-out logs. Others were made with planking, often wound with steel wire for strength.

The basic design of sewers has not changed substantially since the mid-to-late 1800’s, but many pipe materials have been added to the early choices. The first U.S. cast iron foundry appeared in New Jersey in the early 1800s, and Philadelphia was the first U.S. city to use cast iron exclusively for a time. Steel was sometimes used but was less common due to its cost. Clay brick (salt glazed and, later vitrified) was widely used and is still in beneficial service in sewers throughout the US.

See Tracking Down the Roots of Our Sanitary Sewers for more information.


Return to photo index


Knee and t-joints made about 4000 B.C. Found in the excavation of the Temple of Bel at Nippur, Babylonia. Pipe was made of baked clay. Babylonia is often referred to as the birthplace of pipe.

Source: Cast Iron Pipe, Standard Specifications Dimensions and Weights (Burlington, New Jersey: United States Cast Iron Pipe & Foundry Co.,1914), p. 13.

Pithoi in the ruined town of Knossos, Crete. Items including oak and olive oil (first and second in importance) were stored in these vessels for the trade with Egypt.

The stone slabs of the floor are partially removed to show part of the extensive sewage canal system underneath the whole settlement. Knossos was probably the first European settlement with a well organized water system for incoming clean water, regular waste water disposal (ending up in the gardens outside the settlement) and storm sewage canals for the times of heavy rain.

Knossos was also the first place in Europe where "flush" toilets actually functioned (although the "flush" seems to have come from buckets of water). (Information provided by Frans Lamers.) Photo date 1999.

Source: Frans Lamers, Costa Rica.

A huge collection of Roman-era clay water supply pipes in a museum in Pafos, Cyprus.

Source: Source: "A historical perspective on the development of urban water systems," by William James, Professor of Water Resources Engineering, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario,Canada.

Water pipe made of lead in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, Italy.

Source: AlMere/Wikimedia Commons.

Lead pipe in Roman bath in Aquae Sulis (Bath).

Source: Zureks/Wikimedia Commons.

Drain in Didyma, Turkey. Roman plumbing: a joint for distributing water into various channels. Photo date 2002.

Source: Used with permission of Prof. Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University. See http://www.wsulibs.wsu.edu/holland/masc/xworldciv.html.

Taiko Sewerage in Osaka, Japan. In the Azuchi-momoyama Period (approximately 430 years ago), a stone culvert called the Taiko Sewerage was built around Osaka Castle. It is still in use today.

Source: Making Great Breakthroughs - All about the Sewage Works in Japan (Japan Sewage Works Association: Tokyo, ca. 2002), p. 47.

Cast iron pipe laid in Clermont-Ferrand, France, to bring water overland to the Gardens of Versailles, 1748-49. Still in service in 1914.

Source: Cast Iron Pipe, Standard Specifications Dimensions and Weights (Burlington, New Jersey: United States Cast Iron Pipe & Foundry Co.,1914).

This clay pipe, made circa 1800, was used to convey water around the site of Mission San Luis Rey (located in modern-day Oceanside, California). The pipe stayed in active service delivering water until 1957.

Source: Courtesy of the National Clay Pipe Institute.

This piece of clay pipe was made sometime between 1800 and 1801 and was in continuous use at Mission San Luis Rey (located in modern-day Oceanside, California) until it was removed in the summer of 1957, which makes its active life approximately 157 years. It was made by wrapping sheets or pieces of clay around a mandrel. The delicate spigot was made by rotating a “pencil sharpener-like shaper” at the spigot end. The pipe, after being sun-dried, had the wooden core mandrel removed and was then placed in the kiln for firing. The majority of these pipes were joined by native cement which was manufactured on the Mission grounds, or, in some cases, joined by tar from existing tar seeps.

At points where the pipeline crossed low areas, washes, etc., clay pipes were secured to a trestle at a 3 degree to 6 degree pitch by hide thongs. The early mission builders knew that the pipe would leak at the joints, so they positioned roof tiles below the pipe at these crossings. The roof tiles conveyed the leaking water to a bucket for reuse.

Source: Courtesy of Father Anthony Soto; Pacific Clay Products; Ed Lamb, NCPE; Mission San Luis Rey Museum

Mission San Luis Rey (located in modern-day Oceanside, California). See clay pipe above.
Bored log pipes laid in Pennsylvania before 1820. Hollowed-out logs were often used for water and sewage conveyance in early times in the U.S. The raw material (wood) was readily available and the 3' - 4' lengths could be hollowed out by hand augering or burning.

Source: Cast Iron Pipe, Standard Specifications Dimensions and Weights (Burlington, New Jersey: United States Cast Iron Pipe & Foundry Co.,1914).

Cross-sections of Boston sewers: all sizes from building laterals to interceptor sewers. Note different slopes/cross-sections and different construction materials. One such sewer design consisted of a wood invert with brick vertical side walls and a flat crown made of slabs of slate (locally available stone that was recognized to be more corrosion resistant).

Source: Eliot C. Clarke, Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston, 2nd edition (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, 1885), Plate II.

Cross-sections of Boston sewers, circa 1885.

Source: Eliot C. Clarke, Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston, 2nd edition (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, 1885), Plate VI.


Return to photo index


[ Home ] [ Time Lines ] [ Articles ] [ Photos/Graphics ] [ Display ] [ Bibliography ] [ Miscellaneous ] [ Links ] [ Search ]
Copyright © 2004 sewerhistory.org. All rights reserved.