It’s hard to conceive of a world where people didn’t use the bathroom and take showers indoors, but it hasn’t been that many generations since those concepts were nothing more than a pipe dream (excuse the pun). Chances are, your grandparents or someone they knew had to head to the outhouse to take care of business, and didn’t experience the beauty of indoor plumbing til well into adulthood.
So who is responsible for making this modern-day luxury a virtual necessity? That answer is not as easy as it may seem.
When Did Indoor Plumbing Begin?
It turns out, our Neolithic ancestors weren’t quite the barbarians that we sometimes think of them as. Though the concept of wells date back to 6000 BC, it would be another 2-3000 years before mankind would come up with the idea of indoor plumbing in the Skara Brae – a small village in Scotland. There, archaeologists have uncovered a small network of houses that have two-channel pipes lined with tree bark that are indicative of indoor plumbing. These pipes were as simple as could be: their only job was to carry waste to a location away from the main house. When you consider that several thousand years later, people were still using a chamber pot and tossing waste out the window onto the street, these ancient peoples were way ahead of their time.
Though Skara Brae may have been the first recorded instance of indoor plumbing, it wouldn’t take long for other civilizations to follow suit:
- 3000 B.C. – The Indus Valley civilization, located in what is now Northwest India, creates one of the first city-wide sanitation services. Public bathrooms were available, but it also was common for private houses to have their own indoor bathroom, where waste went to an underground series of pipes that spilled out into a nearby reservoir.
- 2650 B.C. – Egyptians, early master coppersmiths, built bathrooms for use in Pyramids. For these people, dying was simply a transitional activity from one life to the next, and whatever needs you have in this life, you’ll have in the next, including food, water, and bathroom privileges. One such example of this is in the pyramid built by King Tut’s father-in-law, which features a brass pipe from the top of the structure all the way to the river nearby.
- 1800 B.C. – Indoor plumbing is great, but the Minoans, located on the tiny island of Crete, took things up a step by inventing the first flushing toilet. It wasn’t until nearly 3000 years later that their idea started becoming mainstream in European culture.
- 500 B.C. – The Romans developed magnificent aqueducts to carry water to and from their civilizations, but they also had one of the most complex underwater piping systems in history, some of which is still in use today!
As you can see, the concept of indoor plumbing is not necessarily new or unique to our time. Where modern man has excelled is in taking these individual concepts – flushing toilets, city-wide sanitation pipes, etc – and combining them into one glorious component of city planning.
So, Who Invented the Toilet?
Several concepts of the flushing toilet have been in existence for the a few thousand years, but the man most responsible for the toilet as we know it is Sir John Harrington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I. In the year 1596, as a sort of weird present to his godmother, he developed two flushing toilets – one for her use in Richmond Palace, and one for himself at his home. Unlike other toilets before it, Harrington’s apparatus had a water cistern on the back that opened up and flushed water down the pipe to forcibly remove waste.
Known as her “saucy godson,” Harrington had a flair for writing – a quality that had him expelled from the royal court on more than one occasion. However, he was able to marry his love of writing with his new invention in a book entitled A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax. If it sounds official, that’s because it is. This tome is not only a technical introduction to his toilet, but also a defense of the toilet. Ironically, none of it makes for light bathroom reading.
Unfortunately for Sir Harrington, he wouldn’t get the credit for developing the first true modern prototype of the flushing toilet. That honor would go to a Scotsman named Alexander Cummings, who developed an s-trap that kept some of the water in the bowl after a flush and allowed for a cleaner (and less smelly) toilet bowl.
When Did Indoor Plumbing Become Common?
In post-Revolution America, indoor plumbing was becoming more and more common. The city of Philadelphia installed cast iron pipes throughout their entire city in 1804, and the Tremont hotel in Boston was the first hotel to have indoor plumbing (1829). The White House soon followed suit, adding plumbing to the main floor in 1833, and everywhere else in 1854.
Following in Harrington and Cummings’ footsteps, the toilet continued to undergo renovations until it reached its current modern state. In 1891, a man by the rather eloquent name of Thomas Crapper patented the valve-and-siphon design that is still in use today, and 1910 saw the tank moved to its current elevated location that we know and love.
Even though most of us take modern bathrooms and indoor plumbing for granted, its a luxury that we should take some time to appreciate. We’re indebted to the heroes of old who spent time developing cleaner, more efficient ways for us to handle our business. Without them, the world would be a much messier place than it is today.