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The History of Distillation

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “distill” (also “distil”) is derived from the Middle English word “destillen”, which was borrowed from the Middle French word “distiller”, which was ultimately derived from the Latin word “destillare.” Literally, the meaning is “de” + “stillare” – to drip or to drop.

Today’s literal translation of the word is “to let fall, exude, or precipitate in drops”. Webster’s Dictionary defines the process of distillation as “the process of heating a mixture and condensing the resulting vapor to produce a more nearly pure substance”.

Chances are that distillation was discovered by accident. The beginnings of distillation are not recorded in the history of early man. However, we can visualize one of our caveman ancestors discovering that the vapor from boiling water would condense on a cooler surface such as a cold rock. Much later, people would observe that the same phenomenon would occur more efficiently if the rock was replaced by a sheet or tube of metal.

We can also imagine the joy of discovering that the droplets that formed from the vapor were cleaner than the original liquid. This made the “new” liquid more desirable for some uses than the original liquid. This event no doubt occurred many times with very little purpose (except, perhaps, to fascinate and entertain) before a practical purpose was discovered.

The earliest examples of distillers that we are aware of are remarkably similar even though they were used by entirely different cultures in regions thousands of miles apart from each other, and apparently with no chance of contact. Each used the basic process of using a vessel to boil the water to create steam, a cooler surface for the steam to condense on, and a mechanism to remove and collect the distilled water produced.

About 2000 years ago the ancient Greek sailors were using a form of distillation at sea when they hung sponges over pots of boiling water. They would squeeze out and collect the precious water that condensed in the sponges from the rising steam. Although derived from the seawater, this water collected from the sponge was not salty and was suitable for drinking.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese used distillation devices aboard ships to provide drinking water. Similar devices were used by physicians and druggists to process perfumed hair oil and other makeup and for sanitary water to wash wounds. Upper-class Asians used to similar distiller called a “Ranbiki” in tea ceremonies.

From such humble beginnings, man eventually learned to use the process of distillation to refine many liquids including alcoholic beverages, perfume, petroleum, solvents, and many other chemicals—and water. The needs of growing chemical and petroleum industry in the 19th century fostered the scientific and engineering effort that resulted in the development of more efficient distillation equipment for a variety of needs.

Referenced from Distillation: Process and Technology, A Study Guide By Athol E. Meder

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