Jon Schladweiler takes sewers very seriously.

The deputy director of engineering and operations with the Pima County (Ariz.) Waste-water Management Department maintains infrastructure that serves nearly 1 million people. In addition to his day job, he serves as the historian for the Arizona Water & Pollution Control Association, for which he curates The Collection Systems Historical Photo and Artifacts Display.

For the past 15 years, Schladweiler has combed historical publications, amassed photos, and assembled ancient artifacts to add to the collection. The traveling exhibit—detailed at www.sewerhistory.org—aims to offer insight into the sewer's humble origins, and to bring to light the not-so-humble contributions that sewer builders, engineers, and operators play in our daily lives.

Following are just some of the fascinating sewer facts Schladweiler has unearthed during his tireless research.

Back To The Beginning

Dating back to 4000 BC, the first drainage systems were found around Babylonia, now modern-day Iraq. Drains made of sun-baked bricks or cut stone were placed in the streets, with some homes connected. While people probably didn't fully understand the crucial health reasons behind proper waste disposal, they did see some of the benefits (such as reduced odor) from taking the material away.

Babylonia is also home to the first sewer pipes, which were crafted out of clay on a potter's wheel.

Somewhere between 3000 and 2000 BC, the Indus civilization in what is now Pakistan enhanced sewers by placing wooden “bar screens” at the end of the masonry drains; liquids either entered brick-lined cesspools or were conveyed to a river for discharge.

Goddess Of Grime

Ancient Romans appreciated their wastewater infrastructure enough to name the goddess Cloacina patron of their sewer system. Her name derives either from the Latin word for sewer (cloaca), or “cloare,” which means “to wash, purify, or clean.” Grateful for her many services, Romans named their main drain—the Cloaca Maxima—in her honor; the drain's first sewage segments were constructed in the late 500s BC.

For the next six centuries, as Rome and its infrastructure grew, so did Cloacina's status; she also became known as the goddess of purity, of filth, and the protector of marital relations.

Sewage Isn'T Child'S Play

Children the world over often join hands in a circle and sing:

Ring around the rosie

Pockets full of posies

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down.

While the game might induce laughter, the origins of the song aren't so funny.

The lyrics refer to the Black Death (circa 1347) and the London Plague of 1665. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of people during those epidemics could have been avoided had city leaders constructed proper sewers instead of allowing human waste to course through streets and alleys.

Bright, rose-colored rash marks signaled the onset of infection. Superstitious citizens believed stuffing their pockets with posies could fend off the disease. “Ashes” refers to the cremation of piles of bodies. And nearly everyone with the plague eventually fell down—dead.

America, The Sewer-Full

In the early- to mid-1700s, Boston recognized the need for a collector sewer system and installed it. The city grew rapidly, and a combined interceptor was authorized in 1876 to help deal with the added burden. One of the earliest known steam-driven sewage pumping systems was put into service at Boston's main drainage works in 1884. In Chicago, after a heavy storm event caused sewage in the Chicago River to be flushed into drinking water intake points near Lake Michigan, the city built its Sanitary and Ship Canal—actually three canals, built between 1892 and 1922—to reverse the direction of the river's flow.

Dying to learn more sewer stories? The exhibit will stop at WEFTEC 07, the Water Environment Federation's Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference, Oct. 15–17 in San Diego; visit www.weftec.org to learn more.