Historic Swimming Pools To The Modern Day

Historic Swimming Pools To The Modern Day
Sarfraz Hayat
The Great Bath At Moenjodaro

It is widely thought that the “Great Bath” found at the site of Mohenjo-daro (which means Mound of the Dead), Pakistan is the first purpose built swimming pool for the public to use.  The bath was built during the third millennium BCE and measures twelve metres (north – south) by seven metres; it had a maximum depth of 2.4 metres.  So how was it engineered to stay watertight?  Bricks were tightly laid together with the use of gypsum plaster in between each brick, for the walls and floor of the pool.  To make it even more water tight, 

a thick layer of natural tar was plastered over the walls and (it is presumed) underneath of the flooring.

The general belief held by historians is that the Great Bath would have been used for religious purposes and the general health and well being of the bathers rather than being used in sport participation.


We have the Ancient Greeks and Romans to thank for the idea of using swimming pools for sport and fitness.  The Greeks first built artificial pools for water based games and military training in their palaestras between the 6th and 8th Centuries BCE (an open court area where people could play ball games, box, wrestle and swim).  Like us, the Greeks and Romans regarded swimming pools as aesthetically pleasing and a way of enhancing their properties, so as the standard of living rose due to increased wealth; more people could afford the luxuries.  One of the Latin words for a pool is 


“piscina”, due to the fact that Roman emperors had private swimming pools in which also held fish.  Gaius Maecenas, a rich Roman lord who is also considered one of the first patrons of the arts, is credited with building the first heated swimming pool.  As mentioned, swimming pools were used by both the Greeks and Romans for military training (swimming is, even to this day, regarded the best form of all round exercise), it was also regarded to be a necessary part of a Greek child’s education, a long with maths, writing, astronomy, etc. to be able to swim and this dates all the way back to 400 BCE.

Kuttam Pokuna / Twin Ponds


The Romans and Ancient Greeks were not the only ones who built pools to bathe in.  Kuttam Pokuna (twin ponds/pools) can be found in Sri Lanka and is one of the best preserved aquatic tanks.  The twin pools were built by the Sinhalese people in the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura and are regarded to be a considerable achievement in hydrological engineering as well as being outstanding creations in architecture and art.

Before water entered the pools, it travelled through underground ducts and was filtered and this process was repeated when the water was emptied.  Decoration of the twin pools’ steps is of a scroll design with pots of abundance.

The Maidstone Swimming Club in Maidstone, Kent is thought to be the oldest surviving swimming club in Britain.  The club was formed in 1844 due to great concern over drownings in the River Medway, especially as people trying to perform the rescue, would often drown themselves, as they couldn’t return safely.  Even though the club used the River Medway as its venue for races, diving and water-polo competitions, swimming pools had actually become popular in 1837, with six pools equipped with diving boards situated in London, England.  The National Swimming Society introduced competitive swimming around the same time as the London pools which were used for these competitions.  These competitions grew in popularity and led to the formation of the Amateur Swimming Association in 1869.


The Racquet Club of Philadelphia clubhouse (1907), USA is the proud owner of one of the first modern day above-ground swimming pools, whilst the first swimming pool to go to sea, was installed on an ocean liner called the Adriatic in 1907 by White Star Line.  We also still have in-ground swimming pools.  One of oldest modern day in-ground pools can be found in Austin, Texas, USA and is called Deep Eddy Pool.  Deep Eddy started naturally as a swimming hole in the Colorado River, cold springs rose from the river banks and people started swimming where a large boulder formed

Deep Eddy

an eddy.  A. J. Eilers Sr bought the land surrounding the swimming hole in 1915 and built a concrete pool which was the main feature of a resort called the Deep Eddy Beach, which also consisted of cabins, and camping facilities.  Deep Eddy is now a listed historical landmark.

The History Of The Swimming Strokes

History Of The Swimming Strokes
What is the history of swimming?  How did swimming evolve into the sport that we know today?  The four competitive strokes, front crawl, breaststroke, butterfly and backstroke each have their own story to tell.  So where to begin?  Plato, the Greek philosopher, declared that anyone who could not swim lacked a proper education (even though the ancient Olympics Games did not include swimming as a competitive sport, but the Greeks did build swimming baths); but swimming can be traced back to the Neolithic period (the New Stone Age).  In the mountainous Gilf Kebir plateau of the Libyan Desert (part of the Sahara), located in the New Valley Governorate of southwest Egypt, near the Libyan border, there is a cave with ancient rock art depicting people swimming; this cave is called the “Cave of Swimmers”.  The rock art is estimated to be created 10,000 years ago during the time of the most recent Ice Age and was discovered by Hungarian explorer László Almásy in October 1933.  Almásy wrote the book “The Unknown Sahara”, to which he dedicates a whole chapter to the “Cave of Swimmers”.  In the chapter he talks about how the swimming art are accurate depictions of life at the time of painting and that there had been a climate change from temperate to desert climate.  The pictures seemingly show people swimming breaststroke or front paddle.

Andrea Meiser
Cave Of Swimmers

Even though the swimming styles are not described, references dating back to 2000 BCE, can be found in the Bible, Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Illiad, the Beowulf and other written works.  An Egyptian clay seal that dates between 4000 BCE and 9000 BCE shows four swimmers swimming a form of front crawl and mosaics in Pompeii depict swimming – just a few of the numerous historical works of art and text that can be found around the planet.  The four competitive strokes certainly did not exist in the beginning and people most likely used water for bathing, washing and relaxation.  Swimming was probably born out of necessity as the Earth’s surface is covered by about 71 % of water.  It is thought that swimming could have been used as an advantage in battle, where people who could swim used water to defeat the opposition who couldn’t swim.  Eventually, people realised that swimming was an essential form of survival and more people learnt how to swim.


Breaststroke is the oldest and the slowest out of the four modern competitive strokes with pictures being able to be traced back to the “Cave of Swimmers”.  It is likely that the stroke kick was developed when prehistoric man studied frogs swimming. The first swimming book, “The Art of Swimming” written by the French author and poet Melchisédech Thévenot in 1696, described breaststroke in a very similar way to that of the modern breaststroke.


Breaststroke was strongly favoured by competitors in Europe when competition swimming started around 1800 (pre-Olympic era) and the British stubbornly continued to only swim breaststroke until 1873 for competitions.

Kevin Hague
Front Crawl


Front crawl was first seen by Europeans in a swimming competition in London in the year 1844.  Even though a variant of front crawl can be traced back to ancient times (An Egyptian bas relief piece dating back to 2000 BCE depicts the stroke being swum), the modern version of front crawl cannot be classed as old as breaststroke due to the major technical changes that the stroke has undergone since it was first seen in 1844.  The Native North American tribe, the Anishinabbe entered Flying Gull and Tobacco into the 1844 London swimming competition and they easily defeated the British

breaststroke swimmers.  Typically being the stuffy British, the English men declared that the front crawl was barbarically “un-European” with its extremely splashy style and continued to swim only breaststroke in competition.

During the years of 1870 and 1890, John Arthur Trudgen was taught the front crawl from South American natives during a trip to Argentina.  Mistakenly though, once back in Britain, Trudgen used the common sidestroke (scissor) kick instead of the flutter kick used by the South Americans.  This stroke was named the Trudgen stroke and because of its speed, quickly became popular in competition.  The Trudgen stroke had its name changed to the “Australian crawl” when the Australian swimming champion, Richmond “Dick” Cavill (1884-1938) and his brother “Turns” developed the stroke.  The brothers took inspiration from Alick Wickham, who was a young Solomon Islander who was living in Sydney, Australia.  Wickham swam a front crawl version that was popular in his native island at Roviana lagoon.

The more modern “American front crawl” is the version of the stroke used in present day.  The American swimmer, Charles Daniels, modified the six beat kick of the Australian crawl and thus creating the stroke we know today.


When freestyle swimming was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1896, it encouraged swimmers to experiment with the breaststroke and front crawl strokes.  Essentially, backstroke is an upside down version of the front crawl (it also the second fastest competitive stroke) and was first included as a competitive stroke in 1900.  Australian swimmers adapted the stroke by bending their arms slightly instead of keeping them straight.

Joseph Sakalak


The butterfly is the third fastest stroke and is also the newest.  It is derived from the breaststroke, even though when teaching the arm pull, it is likened to that of a mirrored version of the front crawl.  David Armbruster, swimming coach of the University of Iowa, refined the breaststroke in 1934 after research identified a problem of drag due to the underwater recovery.  Armbruster adapted the arms so they were brought forward in an over the water recovery breaststroke; he called it the butterfly.  Even though the butterfly was (and still is) difficult to perform, it greatly improved the speed of the breaststroke.  A year later, in 1935, a swimmer also based at the University of Iowa, called Jack Sieg, invented a kick, which involved swimming on his side, and kicking both legs together to simulate a fish’s tail.  Sieg then modified it so the kick was then performed in the prone position and called it the “Dolphin fishtail kick”.  Working together, Armbruster and Sieg quickly realised that combining the individual components created an extremely fast stroke that consisted of two leg kicks to every arm pull.

It is disputed though and Richard Rhodes claims that it was Volney Wilson who invented the dolphin after studying fish and used it to win the US Olympic trials in 1938, but instead was disqualified.  Even though the overwater recovery and the dolphin kick was considerably faster, the kick violated FINA breaststroke rules, so was not allowed.  During the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, a few breaststroke competitors used the butterfly arms with the traditional breaststroke kick and by 1938; the majority of breaststroke swimmers were using this style.  It was not until 1952, that FINA recognised the butterfly as a swimming stroke in its own right, with it’s own set of rules and not a variant of the breaststroke.  The 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, was the first Olympics where butterfly was swum competitively.

Austin Belanger

Like all sports, swimming is constantly evolving and changing.  What we recognise today as the four competitive sports could likely look and be performed completely differently in years to come.