2012: New York and other cities with aging infrastructure are increasingly faced with a problem no one wants to think about—waste of the most personal kind. The city’s sewers, constructed in the late nineteenth century are no longer sufficient to keep sewage from overflowing and spilling into the harbor, posing a threat to wildlife and beach use. The threat of disaster has prompted some in the Environmental Protection Department to develop new solutions to the age-old problem. The New York Times reports:
But perhaps the most unusual of technologies to avoid overflows are the inflatable dams that have recently been installed by the city’s Environmental Protection Department at two locations in Brooklyn: Williamsburg and Red Hook. These dams, large cylindrical rubber structures attached to a concrete base and placed within sewer mains, are controlled by sensors and inflate during heavy rain. Once inflated, they block the flow of rain water and sewage and turn the sewer mains into a wastewater storage site; if the water gets too high, threatening to back up into homes or streets, sensors deflate the dam to release some water.
At a cost of $15.7 million for two, each dam can retain roughly two million gallons of water — until the rain has eased and the dam deflates to allow water to flow to a treatment plant Together, they are expected to save about 100 million gallons of sewage each year from flowing untreated into the harbor.
1184: While the Romans were known for their plumbing ingenuity, progressive sanitation went out of fashion in the medieval era, due largely to the idea that to be clean was a Roman idea and therefore a heathen one. Plumbing continued to be rudimentary for centuries—diarist Samuel Pepys complained of a neighbor’s “house of office” overflowing into his basement more than once. It was also dangerous. A gathering in the Holy Roman Empire saw a group of noblemen meet their deaths when a palace’s waste disposal system failed them:
The Emperor Frederick the First, being in St. Peter’s cloister in the city of Erford, had occasion to go to the privy, whither he was followed by some of the nobles, when suddenly the floor that was under them began to sink; the emperor immediately took hold of the iron grates of a window, whereat he hung by the hands till some came and succoured him. Some gentleman fell to the bottom of the pit, where they perished. And it is most observable, that amongst those who died was Henry, Earl of Schwartzenburg, who carried the presage of his death in a common imprecation of his, which was this, “If I do it not, I wish I may sink in a privy.”
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