The Complete History of Water Softeners & Softening Technology

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Water softeners are such a staple in the modern household that it seems like they’ve been around forever. But actually, water softening systems are a relatively new technology – and they’ve come a long way since they were first invented.

Let’s take a look at the timeline of water softener history, and how these systems have been developed since their invention.

๐Ÿ“Œ Key Takeaways:

  • The history of water treatment dates all the way back to 1500 BC, but water softening was only discovered and developed in the 1800s.
  • There are several important dates on the water softener history timeline, including 1830, when lime softening was developed, and 1903, when ion exchange was developed.

๐Ÿงพ History Of Water Softeners

Let’s take a look at the history of water softener systems as we know it, and how the water softening process was developed over a period of centuries.

History of water softeners

1500 BC – Coagulation Water Discovered

The first known water treatment process to be discovered was coagulation. In Ancient Egypt, people discovered that adding chemicals to water could remove solid sedimentation.

1830 – Lime Softening Was Developed

Numerous other water treatments were recognized and developed in the centuries following the first known discovery, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that hard water would be addressed.

In the 1830s, a chemist called Thomas Clark produced the first water treatment solution for hard water: lime softening.

Clark discovered that adding a calcium hydroxide solution to water would precipitate the calcium bicarbonate, as well as magnesium and the calcium that has been added, as silicates and hydroxides. These precipitates could then be filtered out of the water.

1903 – Ion Exchange Water Softening Was Discovered

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the conventional water softening method that we know today – ion exchange – was developed.

Water’s mineral content was tested, which led to the development of ion exchange softening. Ion exchange produces softened water by exchanging magnesium and calcium ions with sodium ions.

This water softening process was originally used in large cylindrical units filled with lumps of permutit. Hard water would be sent into the units, where it’d percolate through the permutit, removing the calcium and magnesium ions.

How water softeners looked in the 1900s

1959 – Reverse Osmosis (RO) Membranes Were Invented

Reverse osmosis isn’t primarily used for water softening (and in fact, excess hard water scale can damage an RO membrane over time). However, since the RO process inadvertently softens water by removing all dissolved minerals, we wanted to highlight its invention in this timeline.

Two UCLA scientists, Sidney Loeb and Srinivasa Sourirajan, invented the first modern reverse osmosis membranes in 1959. The scientists used cellulose acetate polymer for their invention.

However, the discovery of the first semi-permeable membrane dates back further than this, to 1748, when a chemist named Jean-Antoine Nollet used a pig’s bladder to prove the theory of natural osmotic pressure.

1990s – Early 2000s: Water Descalers Were Developed

It didn’t take long for manufacturers to identify the setbacks of water softeners and work on developing alternative softened water solutions that didn’t use the ion exchange process and didn’t require salt.

After months of testing and trials, the first water descalers were released in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, offering a salt-free descaling process that used electromagnetic impulses to suspend hardness ions in water.

2000 – Now: Water Softeners Development Continues

By this point, water softeners had been established in the form that we know them today. But there was still work that could be done and improvements that could be made.

As technology improved and became more accessible, manufacturers experimented with convenience features such as Bluetooth connection and efficient performance features, like upflow softening tanks.

Many of the most modern water softeners released today boast a whole host of features that help them to do their job as efficiently and effectively as possible, with minimal effort on your part.

Water softening systems are now more widely available than ever, in a range of different sizes and configurations, and at a variety of price points. Now, most people can afford softened water if they want it.

Springwell water softener electronic conrol head and bluetooth app

2000 – Now: Continued Expansion Of Alternative Softening Solutions

Since the discovery of the traditional scale harness removal system, alternative solutions have continued to grow in popularity.

Now, there are numerous methods of treating hard water scale, including template assisted crystallization (TAC) conditioners, electromagnetic conditioners, and liquid water softeners.

These scale prevention methods have benefits over conventional softening: customers don’t need to access water softening tanks to top up salt, and healthy calcium and magnesium minerals are retained in water – just without their scale-forming abilities.

However, these systems will likely never overtake conventional softeners in popularity because there’s no more effective scale prevention method than ion exchange.

๐Ÿ“‘ Final Word

There’s a lot we don’t know for sure about the history of water softening. For instance, the exact dates of the inventions of various units that delivered softened water solutions are contested.

However, we do know that the history of water treatment dates back centuries, and the history of water softening dates back at least 100 years.

When we look at how quickly various water supply systems have been developed since the early 1900s, it’s exciting to contemplate the developments for drinking water treatment that are yet to come.

โ” Water Softener History: FAQ

When were water softeners invented?

The ion exchange softening process, which is now used in conventional salt-based water softener systems today, was first produced after testing was conducted on water’s mineral content in 1903. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that domestic water softeners started hitting the shelves.

When was the first water softener made?

We don’t know exactly when the first water softener was made, or what it was – or even whether it left the laboratory. However, we do know that domestic water softening systems were released in the 1950s, so this method of water treatment has been available for residential use for just over 70 years.

Who discovered soft water?

Soft water was discovered by a chemist called Thomas Clark, who developed the lime softening process in the 1830s. It wasn’t until 1903 that the most effective method of producing soft water was established: ion exchange.

When did Texas ban water softeners?

Texas implemented a state-wide water softener ban in 2001. Amendments to this ban mean that water softeners that meet certain criteria can now be used, so owning a water softener in Texas is not illegal.

When were water descalers invented?

Again, we don’t have any certain date on which the first water descaler was invented, but we know that this technology was being trialed and developed in the 1990s, and electronic descalers were made available in the early 2000s.

  • Laura Shallcross
    Senior Editor

    Laura is a passionate residential water treatment journalist who holds an undergraduate degree in Print Journalism and a masterโ€™s degree in Creative Writing. Over a span of 5 years she's written on a range of topics including water softening, well water treatment, and purification processes.

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