Friday, March 24, 2017

March 25, 1791 – Jefferson Confirms Isaacks’s Purification of Seawater

While touring the United States in 1790, President George Washington was presented with a bottle of desalinated seawater by inventor Jacob Isaacks while in Rhode Island. Isaacks offered two signed certificates of leaders in the local Jewish community noting that the water in the bottle had, in fact, originally been drawn from the briny water of the Atlantic and purified through by Isaacks’s own means.

The Newport Herald pronounced that Washington tasted the water and “was pleased to express himself satisfied.” Isaacks stated that he had a secret mixture that acted as a catalyst, purifying water along with a set of machinery, and the system would be available to the United States government for a price. The method would certainly be a boon to the US Navy as ships needed to put into port often to take on fresh water, though that time could be stretched through grog: water mixed with rum for an alcohol content to slow down the things growing in it.

Washington handed the matter off to his scientifically-minded Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who was fascinated by the possibilities. Jefferson brought Dr. Isaacks to Philadelphia together with a panel of distinguished scholars, including President of the American Philosophical Society David Rittenhouse and two academic chemists, Dr. Wistar and Dr. Hutchinson. Through four days and a collective twenty hours of experimentation, Jefferson and his fellow scientists determined that Isaacks’s methods did, in fact, make seawater potable. Water collected three miles off the coast of Delaware was mixed with Isaacks’s solution (revealed to be largely hydrofluoric acid, a substance isolated by Swedish chemist and used by glass etchers for decades before). It was then pushed through a filter of bone char by means of a hand pump, producing drinkable and remarkably clear water.

While Isaacks largely came across the discovery by means of alchemy, further chemical research in the nineteenth century proved its chemical path, first from the mixture and then the bone char filter:

HF + NaCl → NaF + HCl
(net decrease in specific energy of ~180 kJ mol−1)

CaCo3 + HCl → H2O + CaCl2
(net decrease in specific energy of ~100 kJ mol−1)

Even though the exact science had not yet been revealed, Isaacks was named a national hero through Jefferson’s recommendation to Congress. Isaacks was presented with the Magellanic Premium from the American Philosophical Society as well as a post in the US Revenue Cutter Service, later moved to the US Navy after it was established permanently in 1794. Crews noted that, once generated, Isaacks water even stayed fresh longer than traditionally-gathered water from land, which proved to be from the calcium chloride by-product, now used as a food additive.

Jefferson, meanwhile, became infatuated with the possibilities of naval expansion. His chief clerk’s father, Henry Remsen, was a New York merchant who painted grand pictures of what American ships could do at sea. Jefferson encouraged the Senate to implement ideas as the Navy grew during his time as vice president, and as president, he used the Barbary Wars as reason to swell the navy’s ranks. In 1804, along with the overland Corps of Discovery Exploration led by Lewis and Clark, Jefferson launched the USS Discovery, which was to explore the Pacific, ideally to make contact with Lewis and Clark on the far side of an expected Northwest Passage. While the Discovery only found increasingly impassable icy waters, it also strengthened America’s claims to the western shores of North America, which would lead to squabbles with the British in later generations until the western border of Canada was ultimately drawn at the Continental Divide until 54°40’ N latitude.

Isaacks’s technique was a closely guarded secret for many years until its ultimate re-creation by Britain as part of efforts to keep ships at sea against Napoleon. Under Jefferson’s guidance, President James Madison kept the US from being mixed up in a costly European war. Instead, Madison continued pushing expeditions in the Pacific to find what Jefferson called “unpeopled lands” to civilize. Meanwhile, the government-endorsed sealers, largely New Englanders, pressed farther south than Captain Cook’s discoveries of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, revealing a long peninsula leading to the ice-covered continent of Antarctica.

Although claimed by America, the continent proved difficult to colonize. The few whaling ports that were established to harvest the plentiful animal populations were seasonal and largely deserted after overhunting nearly wiped out several species of seals and penguins. Gradually over the nineteenth century, improvements in artificial lighting and insulated construction made greenhouses possible. It would not be until the Buckminster Fuller domes of the 1960s that Antarctica gained a permanent population.


In reality, Isaack’s mixture, whatever it actually was, did not work. Jefferson presented an official report that November, Exhibit 6 in Vol. 3 of the Annals of Congress, that it was the machines used to do a distillation process, which had already been experimented for over a century and put into use aboard ships for decades. While costly, heat-driven distilling is proven as the most efficient method for making seawater potable.

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