Don Bray, RO Pioneer, Innovator
By David H. Martin
Through my travels covering the water quality industry over 30 years, I have met several creative business giants. One was Donald T. Bray, one of the most innovative pioneers known to this industry. When he died in 2011, it was a loss felt across all disciplines of water treatment. His contributions to the water treatment business are legendary.
In the 1960s, Bray started two water treatment companies, Desalination Systems, Inc. (DSI) and Nimbus Water Systems, Inc. One of the pioneers in the field, he patented the first commercial spiral-wound RO membrane configuration. He and his colleagues were responsible for a long list of patents and innovations, including the first commercial/residential RO system, the first multi-layer RO membrane, the air/water storage tank, the faucet air-gap, the first faucet-mounted RO system, new membrane casting techniques and multi-cartridge rolling systems and machinery.
The day I met Don Bray
I was walking the floor of the WQA trade show in 1984, when I arrived at the Nimbus booth. Bray was there all alone. He greeted me and we briefly discussed his company’s latest products. Then, turning to look back over his shoulder, Bray asked me: “Would you like to see the prototype for the first residential reverse osmosis membrane?” He walked to the back wall of the booth and reached up for what looked to me like a withered, brown, oblong object, mounted behind glass in a small picture frame. What looked to me like a dried-up cigar was, in fact, an actual artifact of water quality industry history, dating back to 1965.
Three years later, Nimbus became a client of my marketing firm, when I was assigned to present a program of original reverse osmosis promotions that I had developed for Culligan a couple of years before. My presentation was in Tucson, AZ, at a meeting of Nimbus RO dealers and was well-received. Afterward, I was to meet Bray’s Nimbus business partner, Clem Macewicz, owner of Cal Soft, then a large San Diego, CA, water softener dealership.
Bray and I would meet once more, at the 1988 WQA Show in San Antonio, TX. The Tucson meeting was even more memorable for me because the editor of WC&P also attended and one week later, hired me as the magazine’s marketing columnist. Other Martin Marketing promotional marketing work during that period included the development of a series of Nimbus dealer ads in collaboration with Bray’s wife.
The following includes edited excerpts from a biographical article written by Bray’s stepdaughter, Patricia Capone, and a former Nimbus employee. It was published in the March 2008 issue of WC&P.
“Don Bray was born March 9, 1922 near Oregon City, ID. When he was 10, his family moved back to the dry sagebrush country of south-central Idaho, about two hours east of Boise.” He felt his lifelong awareness of water issues stemmed from his youth there, wrote Capone. “Bray attended the University of Idaho where he joined the ROTC in 1942. He was sent to Fort Benning, GA, for Officers Training in 1943, where he was among a group of 20 young men from Idaho being trained as second lieutenants to help augment the US forces in Europe.
“When peace finally came, he ended up in Berlin as part of the occupation army. With the war over, Bray resumed his studies at the University of Idaho, graduating with a Master’s Degree in chemical engineering in 1950.” According to Capone’s telling, Bray was selected from a pool of about 500 applicants to attend the renowned Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology, where he received the equivalent of a doctorate in nuclear technology. “In 1954, Bray and 10 other graduates from Oak Ridge started a consulting company called Internuclear and won a contract from the Italian government to design the first civilian nuclear power plant in Italy, where he lived for several years.”
Back in the US, Bray “met with Fred de Hoffman, President of the newly formed General Atomics Company (GA) and moved to La Jolla, CA, to begin work in 1958 as a senior staff engineer. “After almost eight years with GA (and three years after his patent for a spiral-wound RO element had been tested and proven), the Office of Saline Water offered Bray a job as director. He accepted and quit his job at GA. But the job offer fell through,” wrote Capone.
So, at 45 he was a struggling entrepreneur trying to figure out how to manufacture a commercially viable, spiral-wound RO cartridge. “There were two obvious paths: use the technology for large desalination projects or make smaller systems for residential use. Since both looked equally fascinating from a development standpoint, he decided to do both, eventually creating two separate companies,” Capone wrote. Those companies were Desalination Systems, Inc. and Nimbus Water Systems. “From that point on, Bray essentially managed two completely different development departments, in two very different companies, at the same time! Needless to say he worked constantly,” said Capone.
Capone wrote: “At DSI, Bray began an ambitious program to invent a better membrane. His R&D achievements are documented in the patents filed over the years.” (Those accomplishments are noted in the references.) “…the basic design remains the same and is the pattern for the membrane separation industry today,” noted Capone.
Large breakthroughs happened at DSI: multi-stage casting for layered RO and the ability to store and ship dry CA cartridges. During the 70s and 80s, DSI also developed many new membranes,” wrote Capone, “including the rugged Desal-3 RO and the first, true multi-layered nanofiltration membrane, Desal-5. In 1996, Bray sold DSI to Osmonics (later incorporated into GE) and began a semi-retirement. He retained ownership of Nimbus Inc. until his death in 2011. Kinetico Inc. acquired Nimbus Inc. in 2017.
So, what is reverse osmosis water?
Reverse osmosis water is water that has been passed through “a semipermeable membrane to remove ions, molecules, and larger particles.”—Wikipedia
RO can actually be traced back to 1748 to a French physicist, Jean-Antoine Nollet, who used a pig’s bladder as the reverse osmosis membrane, to illustrate the process.
The development of a residential RO system
According to Capone: “If DSI was the place where Bray made his contributions to large-scale RO technology, Nimbus was the small stage where he created the first RO system for home use.” It wasn’t Bray’s only endeavor at the time. “He and Ross Brown, a young engineer who worked for Bartlett, developed the first air/water storage tank in 1968. Somehow, he also made time to work with Brown to develop the first air-gap for a sink faucet. By 1969, Bray and Brown figured out a way to package all the necessary RO steps (pretreatment, RO membrane, post-treatment and storage) into a system small enough for residential use.” That system, patented by Bray and Brown in 1970, according to Capone, “was remarkable for its small footprint and number of innovations. In fact, it was considerably ahead of its time.”
After being rebuffed by Arrowhead Water in 1970 for the new technology, Bray became even more determined, according to Capone. “He turned to the only people who would take his invention seriously, the water softener dealers. Later in 1970, Bray and Macevicz began to install the first few hundred N-3A units through Macevicz’s company, Cal Soft Water in San Diego. This type of partnership between water softening and home RO soon became common in the industry. It would be years before the corporate world took the home RO market seriously.”
“I didn’t set out to do all those things,” Bray recalled to Capone. “After the war, I was going to be a nuclear engineer…but I was fortunate enough to be sidetracked by so very many interesting problems.”
Bray’s many achievements, as documented in Capone’s article published 12 years ago in WC&P, represent an important chapter in the history of water treatment. I will never forget the day I met him.
- Michaels, Alan S., March 16, 1965. Membrane Separation Device, US Patent #3173867.
- Westmoreland, Julius C., February 6, 1968. Spirally Wrapped Reverse Cell, US Patent #3,367,504.
- Bray, Donald T. December 24, 1968. Reverse Osmosis Purification Apparatus, US Patent #3,417,870.
- Bray, Donald T., Brown, Ross M., February 3, 1970. Purified Water Supply Apparatus and Method, US Patent #3,493,496.
- Bray, Donald T. and Brown, Ross M., November 24, 1970. Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit, US Patent #3,542,199.
About the author
David Martin, President of Lenzi Martin Marketing, has more than 30 years experience in the water quality industry working with dealers, distributors and manufacturers. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404 or firstname.lastname@example.org.