Who Really Invented the Water Softener?

by Hardly Waite

Author’s Note:  The piece below is adapted from an earlier version that appeared in the Pure Water Occasional for June, 2010.

The water softener is the flagship product of the modern water treatment industry. Traditional water treatment “dealerships” have been built around the water softener for decades.

The softener is commonly said to have been introduced in 1903, although the details of its origin are sketchy.

Here is the Culligan version of the origin of the softener, from Culligan’s website:

Emmett Joseph Culligan grew up in a farming background in the hard water areas of South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. He was well aware of the difference between hard well water and the soft rain water most families collected in cisterns. The 9th day of January, 1921, was probably the most significant day of his life. As an expectant father he was pacing the halls at St. Joseph¹s Hospital and ended up in the boiler room. He struck up a conversation with the maintenance superintendent. Next to the boilers were two large cylindrical tanks which the superintendent proudly announced softened the water to prevent scaling in the boilers and save soap in the hospital laundry.
Emmett Culligan's First Coffee Can Water SoftenerThe superintendent then explained how he could prevent diaper rash by building his own softener to use to wash his baby’s diapers.

Culligan exhibited a tremendous interest in the hospital water softener and finally prevailed upon the superintendent to give him a coffee can full of the greenish-black mineral, called Zeolite, which “magically” removed the hardness from water.

The superintendent explained how Culligan could punch some pinholes in the bottom of the coffee can, put about an inch of coarse sand in the bottom, and then fill it with the green sand Zeolite. The superintendent told him he could hold this “coffee can softener” under the faucet, let hard water trickle through the device into a wash basin and the resulting water would be softer than rain.

So fascinated was Emmett with his first encounter with ion exchange that the expectant father almost forgot why he was at the hospital. The nurses had searched, from one end of the halls to the other, before locating him in the boiler room to announce that he was the father of a healthy baby daughter.

The rest is history.

At Pure Water Products we have a different version. It’s about how part of man’s punishment for the apple eating incident was being deprived of the naturally soft water in the garden. To spare humans the anguish of spotty glassware and excessive soap consumption, Pure Water Annie (Pure Water Products’ technical wizard) invented the water softener just a few days after the great flood.

That’s a lot more likely than the coffee can myth.  And what was Emmett Culligan doing in the hospital’s boiler room anyway?

Above,  the original softener invented by Pure Water Annie. Compare the advanced design with Emmett Culligan’s primitive coffee can softener above.  Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Institute.