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The History of drainage.

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Drainage is the natural or artificial removal of surface and below surface water from one area to another.  In most cases it is something that happens naturally because water is always seeking it’s own level, that is, sea level, thus it proceeds to flow downhill after rain and snow melt.  Drainage is really what waterproofing is all about, causing the water to flow away from the foundation before it can cause any problems. There are occasions when, due to the soil or geographical oddities, water doesn’t naturally flow off the land.  In agricultural areas, this can be a real problem as excess water will hinder growth of plants or cause the spoilage of crops.  In these cases artificial drainage is needed to cause and allow the water to move elsewhere.

Maybe the most famous and noticeable example of the use of drainage of that sort has occurred in the Netherlands.  The Dutch have dammed up areas of the North Sea, drained them of sea water, and made these same areas lands of fresh water supply and farming.  As these areas are below sea level, the drainage and discharge by way of pumps is a continuous process.

Drainage goes back to at least the Indus valley civilization.  This was the area around the Indus River, roughly modern Pakistan, where drainage and sewerage with covered drains was discovered, as opposed to the usual open shallow ditches, and these drains were available to all households.  This drainage was routed away from the population, generally into streams and rivers. Great Britain also did a lot of work in field drainage using the first hollow pipe drainage in the mid 1700s. 

However, in dealing with modern drainage for homes, that came about because of the work of an American, Henry Flagg French.  You may have heard of the term ‘French Drain’.  It doesn’t refer to a system from France but refers to the drains installed due to the research research and work on drainage by Henry French.

French was born in 1813 and became a lawyer, judge, even Assistant Secretary of the United States Treasury.  His fascination, however, was always in agriculture.  He was a proponent of draining excess water from farm fields as a way of producing and increasing healthier crops.

He was also convinced that draining water away from a home and its basement would make it a healthier place to live.  It may have been that belief that inspired him to travel to England and the Netherlands in 1857 to learn more about those country’s developments in drainage.  He had been greatly affected by the death of his first wife from ‘consumption’, possibly tuberculosis, that he suspected she contracted because of the conditions caused by their wet basement.  He wondered if she would have lived had the cellar of their farmhouse not constantly been wet and damp, sometimes with up to a foot of water from rain and snow melt.

His visit to Europe resulted in the publication of his book, “Farm Drainage’.  It is hard for us today to fathom what a revolution this book caused in both farm and home drainage and with the positive effects it had on both.  This 1859 book is to drainage and agriculture (also building) as was Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica’,  to the ‘Scientific Revolution” or Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’,  to biology!  It was that impactful on the subject of drainage and is still relevant today!

French wrote, ‘from the time when Noah and his family anxiously watched the subsiding of the waters into their appropriate channels to the present, men must have felt the ill effects of too much water and adopted means more or less effective, to remove it.”  His work not only lead to better drainage for farmland but also to the drainage around homes for drier basements and healthier living conditions.

Lee, T.K.. Saying Goodbye To Your Basement Blues: A Self-Help Basement Waterproofing Guide for Homeowners . Kindle Edition.

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