The History of Water Filters

Ever wondered where water filters started? Water pollution has been a problem since the beginning of civilization. We take a look at how water filters evolved though the years, from ancient Greece and Egypt to modern day life.

There are records that have been written that date back to very early civilizations in relation to the topic of ancient water filters. Water pollution is not just a modern day dilemma, and though we are much better equipped to combat it now, our need for effective treatment is greater than ever. During various periods of history, water filters have been used to improve water conditions, and also the visual appeal of any water that was proposed to be used for consumption and bathing. During our modern era, they are currently used widely within various industry and commerce sectors. It can be said that our increase in use of water filters (and reliance on them) is in direct proportion to the industrialization, and increasing population of the modern  world. While natural habitats disappear, and chemicals use creeps further into society, the need for effective water filtration has never been greater.


egypt water device

Ancient Egyptian drawing of a water filter

The Ancient Sanskrit and other Egyptian writings provide evidence of methods that have been followed in order to make sure that any supply of water was purified when being used for consumption. Various methods are mentioned, which included boiling and heating under sunlight. There is a mention also of filtering the supply of water by using a provision of sand and coarse gravel. There have been images discovered in tombs in the nation of Egypt that date back as far as many centuries BCE that display various devices that were used to treat water.



Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician

Water purification experiments were conducted by Hippocrates himself. He had a theory that there were four humors in a human body and that these humors were required to be kept in balance in order to preserve and maintain a condition of good health. He made a recommendation that those who had fevers be placed in a bath of cool water. He believed that it was necessary for any supply of water usage to be clean and pure; therefore he decided to design a filter that would be able to purify the supply of water that was used in treating his patients. This filter became known as a Hippocratic sleeve. It essentially was a cloth bag that functioned as a filter through which boiled liquid was poured.

Hippocrates' Sleeve

Hippocrates’ Sleeve being used to make wine

There have been other methods used in order to be able to mask bad water. Diophanes of Nicaea said that laurel that had been macerated should be put into rain water. Paxmus suggested that it was necessary to put either coral that was bruised or barley that was pounded be put into a bag that would be placed into bad tasting water. Gerber, who was an Arabian alchemist, believed that various stills were needed to purify water, which implemented wick siphons for transferring liquid from one container to another.

Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon, a philosopher and scientist

In his famous compilation, Sir Francis Bacon in 1627 went on to discuss desalination (removing minerals or salt from water) and commenced his first scientific experiment in relation to filtration. He thought that if water from the sea had an opportunity to percolate through sand, it would no longer contain any salt. He assumed that particles of sand would cause obstruction of accumulation of salt in any water. Though he was wrong in his idea, he paved a way for a new interest regarding filtration.


Ancient Egyptian limestone water filter found in a ruined mosque in Kenya

Lucas Antonius Portius, an Italian physician, illustrated an experiment in sand filtration. A multiple sand filtration method was mentioned in his work that was called “Soldier’s Vade Mercum.” He was able to demonstrate his filtration experiment with using three sand filters. Anotonie van Leeuvenhoek along with Robert Hooke, who are labelled as fathers of microscopy, were able to use a newly invented microscope to be able to perform an observation of small material particles that were visibly laying suspended within a supply of liquid for a very first time in history. This paved fundamental groundwork for being able to understand pathogens that are waterborne.

Ancient Egyptian jar filter

Ancient Egyptian filtered water jar. 2nd-5th c AD

The year of 1804 marks a time of first documented usage of sand filtration that was purposed for real purification of water. John Gibb, who was an owner of a bleachery in Paisley in Scotland, performed an installation of a filter that was experimental. He sold his unwanted surplus to people in this area. Following two decades, this method was able to be refined by some engineers who were employed by private companies. An end result was that they had achieved a first purified public supply of water in history in their world that had been set up in London in 1829 for Chelsea Waterworks Company.


Many strides have been made since 1804 to today to develop various modern types of purification systems that we have today for both cities and for usage at home as individuals. This has helped in preventing waterborne diseases. The water filters of today are sophisticated and effective, but are by no means perfect. Furthermore, will our increasing reliance on chemicals in industry force water filters to evolve and become even more effective? Access to clean water is no longer something that we can take for granted. Hopefully, water filter design can stay ahead of the curve.



If you’d like to read about more modern day water filters, then we have some great reviews of whole house water filters and their reverse osmosis counterparts.

We recently gave out awards to the filters that we believe are the best. Check out our  awards for RO filters and whole house filter systems.


Further Reading

Ancient world

Hi I'm Jamie, teacher and owner/chief contributor at We strive to bring you the most informative water filter reviews in the most intuitive and user friendly way. Besides offering advice on the water filter to suit your needs, we also post topical articles on water pollution and the environment. Stay connected and follow us on, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and more!

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