From the Vault: What’s In Your Water?

Without the efforts of such pioneers as George W. Rafter on the job, you might not want to know.

George W. Rafter (from Rochester and the Post Express [1895], p. 232.)

George W. Rafter (from Rochester and the Post Express: A History of the City of Rochester from the Earliest Times [1895], p. 232.)

Although plumbing systems have existed since ancient times, modern sewage systems are relatively new, appearing in the mid-19th century as scientists began to link the coincidence of disease outbreak with their proximity to sewage-tainted water.

Born in Phelps, Ontario County, Rochester resident George W. Rafter (b. 1851, d. 1907) was at the forefront of water supply management in the United States. In addition to serving as assistant engineer of the Rochester waterworks from 1883 to 1887, Rafter’s reputation in the field led to various projects in other regions. In 1882, he was hired to lead the construction of the waterworks in Fort Worth, Texas. He also served as engineer and designer of waterworks in Fredonia and Westfield, New York, and was employed as a sanitary expert in Boston. In 1898 Rafter was appointed head of the Water Supply Division for the United States Board of Engineering on Deep Waterways, and in 1904 was sent by the State Engineer to Europe to study and report on movable bridges.

On the Measures for Restricting the Use and Waste of Water, in Force in the City of Rochester, N. Y., 1892. (From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division.)

An alumnus of Cornell University, Rafter co-authored Sewage Disposal in the United States (1894), which would become a standard text in the fields of sewage treatment and water supply management. In fact, by the time of his death at the age of 56, Rafter had published over 160 pamphlets, monographs, and papers on engineering and a variety of subjects. He was also a prominent figure in the relatively new field of photo-micrography, a pursuit he enjoyed in his spare time.
Plate 33

Plate 33. 20/1. Complete leaf of fern attached to stem and showing spores. Mount by John D. King. 1/2 inch objective. Lamplight. (From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division)

Plate 42

Plate 42. A series of photographs of the crenothrix polyspora. (From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division)

I first learned about George Rafter upon discovering a large box of mounted albumen photographs of what looked like science experiments in one of our stacks areas. It turned out that in 1888, Rafter had donated 88 of his photo-micrographic plates to the Reynolds Library, along with a detailed inventory that described each type of organism, how the slide was prepared, the magnification used, and the type of illumination utilized. In fact, Rafter was so passionate about photo-micrography that, dissatisfied with the camera apparatus available at the time, he went ahead and invented his own.

Professional Photo-Micro-Camera designed by George W. Rafter (from the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society, October 1887, p. 823.)

Professional Photo-Micro-Camera designed by George W. Rafter (from the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society, October 1887, p. 823.)

Plate 71. 70/1. Slide of arranged diatoms by Thomas Christian. 1/2 inch objective. Sunlight. (From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division.)

Plate 71. 70/1. Slide of arranged diatoms by Thomas Christian. 1/2 inch objective. Sunlight. (From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division)

Plate 62. 240/1. Diatom Triceratium favus. From the slide of arranged diatoms shown in Plate 61. 1/2 inch objective with amplifier. Sunlight. (From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division)

Plate 62. 240/1. Diatom Triceratium favus. From the slide of arranged diatoms shown in Plate 61. 1/2 inch objective with amplifier. Sunlight. (From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division)

The research that Rafter performed and the discoveries he made helped shape the evolution of water supply management, from analyzing bacteria to investigating dams, canals, and reservoirs. Rafter’s life was cut short—possibly due to complications from diabetes—while on vacation in Europe in 1907. He left behind a wife and two daughters.

~Cheri Crist, Librarian

Sources

“Death of George W. Rafter While Visiting in Europe.” The Rochester Herald (Rochester, NY), Dec. 30, 1907.

Devoy, John. Rochester and the Post Express: A History of the City of Rochester from the Earliest Times. (Rochester, N.Y.: Post Express Printing Co., 1895).

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very nice!

    • Thank you!

  2. I think this would make a great book someday 🙂


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