This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Sweetening the Waters *

The Israeli cabinet recently approved an emergency plan calling for expansion of its desalination capacity, so that by 2013 the proportion of water provided by desalination must equal that extracted from the Sea of Galilee. Ever-increasing proportions of Israel's water supply are already being furnished in the form of desalinated salt water, and by some estimates Israel currently leads the world in the development and implementation of desalination processes.

The scarcity of drinkable water has always been a disquieting reality of the Israeli climate, and it had a profound impact on shaping the Hebrew religious consciousness. In ancient times, threats of withholding rainfall were an effective divine sanction against disobedience, and the production of drinking water provided frequent occasions for miracle tales, as when Moses was called upon to sweeten the bitter waters by stirring them with a tree, or to make water flow from a rock to satisfy the thirsty Israelites in the desert. Rabbinic legend told of a wondrous well that accompanied the Israelites through their wanderings in the wilderness thanks to the merits of Moses's righteous sister Miriam.

In modern Israel, the precariousness of the water supply has been compounded by lax environmental practices, increased demand and prolonged dry spells. While the current interest in desalination as a mainstream source of drinking water has mostly been a consequence of recent developments in the ecological crisis, demographic growth and advances in science, an interest in this technology has been around for quite a long time. Chief among the stakeholders were the providers of oceanic travel who looked to desalination as a way to free passenger liners from the costly burdens of carrying large reserves of fresh water. With the expansion of trans-ocean travel in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, entrepreneurial inventors strove to devise more cost-effective methods of extracting fresh water from the ubiquitous brine.

Enter Mr. Jacob Isaacs (or Isaacks), an impecunious member of the venerable Jewish community of Newport Rhode Island in the late eighteenth century. Though Mr. Isaacs does not appear to have possessed any formal credentials in science or engineering, he was propelled by a personal zeal for desalination. When George Washington visited Newport in August 1790, Isaacs presented him with a bottle of desalinated sea water that he had personally created, assuring the President that the fluid was "extracted from ocean water, so free from saline material as to answer for all the common and culinary purposes of fountain or river water." The president was reportedly "highly satisfied" with the product that he received.

During the following year, Isaacs turned to the American House of Representatives, submitting a petition in which he declared that he had discovered a revolutionary new method for treating salt water. His technique was so simple that it could be applied in the kitchens of normal seagoing vessels. Isaacs offered to divulge the secrets of his process to the American government in exchange for fair compensation for his time and expenditures.

The House of Representatives turned the matter over to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was renowned for his passionate interest in scientific research. In March 1791, Jefferson assembled three distinguished American scientists, members of the American Philosophical Society, to observe a demonstration of Mr. Isaacs' desalination process. When the initial trial proved inconclusive, Jefferson urged the scientists to give it a second chance, explaining that whatever the results, he viewed the occasion as a valuable opportunity to impress upon the scientific community the importance and ultimate viability of desalination. He ordered the three experts to avoid delay in reaching their final decision, urging them to have consideration for the fact that Isaacs "is poor, and complains that his delay here is very distressing to him."

The testing continued for four more days, and meanwhile Jefferson was gathering information about previous experiments in the field. However, at this juncture the process had to be postponed until October owing to the adjournment of Congress, and it took another month for them to submit the actual report. The resulting "Affidavit of the Secretary of State on the Result of the Experiments" opened with a survey of three centuries of previous efforts at desalination, and then it turned its attention to a detailed description of the process that Jefferson's scientific team had witnessed: "Mr. Isaacks fixed the pot of a small cabouse [=ship's kitchen], with a tin cap, and strait tube of tin passing obliquely through a cask of cold water: he made use of a Mixture, the composition of which he did not explain, and from 24 pints of sea water, taken up about three Miles out of the capes of Delaware, at flood tide, he distilled 22 pints of fresh water in four hours, with 20 lbs. of seasoned pine, which was a little wetted, buy having lain in the rain." 

At this point, the scientists decided to run through the experiment once more without Isaacs' mysterious "Mixture" in order to establish how crucial it had been to the operation. This resulted in a slight speed increase and a more efficient use of the wood fuel. A series of additional trials of this sort determined that the mysterious Mixture had no significant effect on the outcome.

The report was effusive in its praise for the quality of the water that was extracted by means of Isaacs' process. It was at least as pure as the fresh water that was pumped in the city--and tastier than some of it.

To their credit, Jefferson continued, Isaacs' experiments should be acknowledged as powerful evidence that ocean waters could be sweetened by a relatively simple, cost-effective process that could be replicated on any sailing vessel. The United States government should make this information widely available to the shipping industry, printing it on the reverse sides of the permits of every vessel that sailed out of American ports, in the hope that they would try the experiment on their voyages and return with detailed reports of the successes or failures of the technology.

As for Mr. Jacob Isaacs, his patience and resources were being stretched by the government's lengthening delays in responding to his request for financial compensation. After being read in Congress, Jefferson's report was conveniently forgotten. At any rate, the Secretary of State recommended that no patent be awarded for this particular process because it did not appear to be significantly novel or superior when compared to existing methods. As a general rule, Jefferson was somewhat ambivalent on the issue of patents. Though he was all for the liberal encouraging and rewarding of inventors, he was reluctant to allow them long-term monopolistic ownership over their inventions. As a result, very few patents were issued under his administration of the office.

The historical record, as far as I know, has nothing to say about Isaacs' personal reaction to Jefferson's recommendation, nor about his subsequent involvement in scientific ventures. One might well imagine that his disappointment was akin to the pouring of salt water on a wound--and that he would have found little consolation in the knowledge that his efforts would later be perceived as part of a historic current of Jewish water-sweeteners extending from Moses to modern Israel.

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On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, February 18, 2011, p. 11.
  • For further reading:
    • Abramowitz, Barbara Hillson. "George Washington Shlept Here: America's Jewish Connection Has a Building at Its Center." Liberty Apr 1977: 23-25.
    • Friedenwald, Herbert. "Jacob Isaacs and his Method of Converting Salt Water into Fresh Water." Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 2 (1894): 111-117.
    • Gutstein, Morris A. The Story of the Jews of Newport: Two and a Half Centuries of Judaism 1658-1908. New York: Bloch, 1936.
    • Martin, Edward Thomas. Thomas Jefferson: Scientist. New York: H. Schuman, 1952.
    • Schachner, Nathan. Thomas Jefferson: A Biography. New York and London: T. Yoseloff, 1960.