What is the most important invention ever? If you base your answer on the number of lives saved then it is the toilet. Toilets have reduced disease, improved child mortality rates, and made it possible for humans to live in close quarters. In this episode, I explore the long history of the toilet from Neolithic drainage to today's porcelain wonders.
Show Transcript and Pictorial History of the Flush toilet:
Click the pictures for links to articles with additional information.
Welcome to Hang Your Hat, I’m Amy, and this is Episode 25, the Throne
In this week’s episode, we are going to talk about one of the most important inventions in human history. One that has reduced disease, improved child mortality rates, and made it possible for humans to live in close quarters. Yet we rarely talk about it. What is this magical invention? The Lavatory, the Loo, the John, the Privy, the Latrine, the Bog, the Potty, the can, the toilet.
It may surprise you just how old the toilet is, but it turns out that even ancient peoples didn’t want to live in their own filth.
One of the earliest example of what we believe to be a toilet is from Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement in Scotland that dates back to about 3000 b.c. And believe it or not, most toilet researchers think they had not only toilets but indoor toilets with built-in drainage systems.
The Skara Brea settlement was discovered around 1850 and was remarkably well preserved. When excavated archeologists found small rooms in the settlement’s dwellings that were connected to drainage chutes. While they fell short of indoor plumbing with running water they were able to flush their toilets by pouring pots of water into what was essentially their sewer system.
Despite their early entry into toilet technology, by 1970, 1 in four Scots was still having to share an outdoor toilet, a problem that has been rectified for the most part today.
The Indus Valley civilization which was in what is now western India and Pakistan was also an early entrant into the race for modern toilet technology, despite the regions current sanitation issues.
The sanitation system used by the Indus Valley people was actually pretty similar to the system used at Skara Brea, in that they had indoor toilets that drained to the outside of the house, but the infrastructure was a lot more advanced.
Indus Valley homes had toilets that you could sit on and all of my sources described them as wet toilets, meaning that they held water. The toilet drained out of the house through a clay brick pipe into a drain that was shared with other houses, like our modern sewer system. From there the toilets would drain into cesspits, or be carried out of the city altogether. The sewer system was publicly maintained and had man-hole covers and larger chambers to assist with its maintenance. It really was a very modern sanitation system.
However, the Roman Empire is often cited as the pinnacle of sanitation in the ancient world, because they had toilets that flushed - at least sort of flushed.
The first flushing toilet that we know about was made by Minoans on the island of Crete. The oldest example we have is from the palace of Knossos, which dates back to around 1700 b.c. However, at that time toilets were used only by the elite.
The Greeks made toilets, even the fancy flushing kind, available to the masses. They made large publicly available latrine rooms, which basically consisted of a bunch of seats with holes suspended over a drainage system. While private toilets in the home were not available to the lower classes, many middle-class homes had toilet facilities, although they usually weren’t the flushing variety.
It was the Romans however, that whole-heartedly adopted the use of the toilet. They became part of Roman life, as ubiquitous as the Roman bath.
Roman public toilets were a lot like their Greek predecessors. They were basically rooms lined with benches with holes in the top connected to a drainage system below. Water would run through the drainage system cleaning away the waste.
The running water was a result of the Roman aqueduct system. I was surprised to find while researching that the aqueduct system carried both potable and non-potable water. The potable water was of course used for drinking and cooking, the non-potable water was used for things like the Roman baths and the sanitation system. One source even suggested that water from nearby baths was used to flush public toilets. That is using resources wisely.
However, despite the apparent modernity of Roman sanitation, it really didn’t do that much to reduce disease. One of the big reasons is that their toilets lacked a very important part of modern toilet technology, the “S” bend.
The S bend is basically an S-shaped piece of pipe that traps a bit of water when you flush. That bit of water keeps things from coming back up the pipe and into your toilet, like flies and sewer gas.
Since the Roman toilets didn’t have an S bend they stank, and more importantly, they harbored flies. Flies are a disease vector. They transfer whatever they have been eating or standing on, like human feces, to whatever they eat or stand on next, like your food.
Roman public toilets were dangerous in other ways too. They harbored rats, roaches, snakes, and god knows what else. Fortunately for the Romans, one of their gods did know what else. Many Roman latrines have shrines to the goddess Fortuna. She was thought to protect toilet users from illness causes demons and other bad things that could happen while using the toilet.
In addition, archeologists now don’t think that the Roman sewer system was nearly as vast or advanced as we used to believe, so the removal of waste may not have even been that effective.
After studying the remains of pathogens in archeological sites, scientists found that the prevalence of intestinal parasites like roundworm and whipworm didn’t decrease from the Bronze and Iron ages to the Roman period like they expected, they actually rose. Despite all of the effort involved, Roman sanitation didn’t make its population any healthier than previous peoples.
The dark ages in Europe saw a lot of scientific knowledge and technology that was common among the Romans lost to the mists of time, and toilet technology was no exception.
By the medieval period toilets for the masses consisted of a mixed bag of chamber pots, communal outhouses, and holes in the ground. The elite had something altogether different, however, the garderobe. A garderobe was usually a tiny room in a castle that protruded from the side of the building and was open at the bottom, allowing gravity to do the job of waste removal. You may have even seen a garderobe because one was featured in a certain scene in Games of Thrones involving a crossbow and the use of a toilet.
Most garderobes simply let the waste fall into a cesspit or the moat, or directly to the ground, but some castle dwellers must have thought that was pretty gross and used a drainage system. Christchurch monastery was one of those. They actually had a really elaborate drainage system that separated running water, drainage, and waste.
If you are wondering why garderobe sounds so much like wardrobe it is because it comes from the French words for guard, as in protect, and robe, meaning clothes and is what the modern term wardrobe comes from. That is because clothes were often kept in the garderobe. The ammonia smell in the room from all the urine was thought to protect clothes from fleas and other bugs by killing them - which leads me to believe that that the smell of ammonia in the room must have been unbearable.
The forerunner to the modern flush toilet was finally invented in the 1590s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 1st in England by Sir John Harington. Harington was the Queen’s godson and a bit of a trouble-maker. During the 1590s he invented a flush toilet with a mechanical valve to seal off the toilet and a tank of water to flush it - 2 of the basic components that make up a modern flush toilet. He called it the Ajax - which was a riff of the slang word for the toilet at that time - a jakes. It took 7.5 gallons of water to flush it - an extravagant amount at the time since this was still before modern plumbing. It also flushed into a cesspool below the toilet, and since this was also before the invention of the “s” bend all the fumes from the pit wafted back up through the toilet into the house, making it - less than ideal.
Despite these obvious short-comings of the Ajax Queen Elizabeth herself is alleged had one installed.
Harington introduced the Ajax to the world in 1596 in a publication called, “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax.” While the book did detail the workings of the Ajax toilet and how to build one, it was also a discourse on obscenity and a thinly veiled critique of his peers - the members of the ruling class.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ajax was not widely adopted.
Toilets finally became practical in 1775 when the inventor Alexander Cumming patented what is possibly the greatest contribution towards the modern toilet - the “S” bend pipe.
The problem that had plagued toilets prior to Cumming’s invention was the smell. Sure you could flush away the excrement, but there was nothing stopping that stink from floating back up the pipe. There needed to be a sealed barrier that would not let the gas pass back up the pipe, and Cumming came up with a surprisingly simple and elegant solution - bend the pipe.
A pipe with an S bend look a lot like an S lying on its side so one of the curved portions of the S is pointing toward the floor. That part of the “S” captures a bit of water every time the toilet is flushed, and that trapped water acts as a barrier to the gas that tries to escape up the pipe, meaning that your toilet won’t smell like a sewer - at least as long as you clean it.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that the flush toilet went mainstream though, and it is thanks to a man named Thomas Crapper.
First, let's get something out of the way - the word crap, meaning excrement, did not start with Thomas Crapper. Crap had been in use since at least the time that crapper was in diapers and referred to the contents of diapers. Crapper was just exceptionally well named for his eventual career.
Crapper, also, I am sure it is obvious at this point did not invent the flush toilet, although he did patent several bathroom-related inventions, like the ball-cock.
Crapper is so well known for his contributions to the toilet because he was hired by England’s Prince Edward to install some of his toilets in several royal palaces, and because he displayed his toilets in showrooms, so when people needed a toilet they were already familiar with the Crapper name.
You are probably familiar with the Crapper toilet design because they are common in movies about the Victorian period and in a lot of old cartoons. He mounted his water tank high up on the wall, with a pipe and pull cord leading down to the base of the toilet.
His design is still in production today. If you want to buy one, his iconic design starts at 2209 pounds and can be bought at thomas-crapper.com
Throughout the 20th century, there were no major improvements to the basic toilet design. Between 1900 and 1910 the toilet’s wash down method was improved when siphon-jet models were introduced. Those are the little holes on the underside of the toilet bowl that are so difficult to clean. At the same time, high wall mounted tanks were replaced with low tanks, and the opulent and difficult to clean toilets of the Victorian era were replaced with the smooth white easy to clean surfaces that we know today.
The economic pressures of the 1930’s made new more affordable close coupled two piece models more popular, and these are basically the toilets we have in our homes today. Toilets have changed in style over the years, but the only significant technological difference between the toilets that we have today and those of the 1930’s is the amount of water used - we now have low-flush and dual flush models that conserve water.
Of course, there are some pretty cool futuristic toilets out there now that for the most part have not made it into people’s homes, but that’s a story for another time.
Today’s show topic was requested by a listener and turned out to be a much more interesting show topic than I had anticipated. You can find pictures of all of the toilets I talked about in today’s show on the show notes at hangyourhatpodcast.com. The early flush toilets are really pretty cool looking.
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