Episode 30: Ancient Air Conditioning

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Even though it is autumn now, down here in Florida it can still get pretty hot, and I was reminded just how hot it can get when Hurricane Michael struck my region. Hurricane Michael left me and thousands of others without electricity and therefore without air conditioning. It made me wonder, how did people stay cool before air conditioning existed? It turns out that ancient people didn’t just sweat it out. They actually came up with some really ingenious ways to keep their cool. On Episode 30 of Hang Your Hat, I explore some of the ways that ancient people stayed cool, even in the hottest climates, and what we can do today to stay cool without electricity.

Episode 29: RadaRange

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There is a good chance you have heard the story about the inventor of the microwave standing in front of radar and noticing that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted.  You probably haven't heard that the event that story was based on occurred more than 70 years ago, or that it wasn't actually a chocolate bar, or that despite growing up in poverty and having almost no formal education the invention of the microwave was among the least important contributions that the inventor of the microwave left to mankind.  Learn the real story on this week's episode of Hang Your Hat.

Show Transcript

Welcome to Hang Your Hat.  This is episode 29: RadaRange

When it is time to pop popcorn, heat a frozen dinner, or warm up leftovers, there is a good chance that you will turn to a kitchen device that wasn’t a part of our parents or grandparents kitchens - the microwave.  The microwave is now a part of over 90% of American kitchens, but how did it get there and where did it start?  On today’s episode of Hang Your Hat I will discuss the birth of the microwave and its unlikely inventor.


Percy LeBaron Spencer was born in 1894 in Howland Maine population just 171, the 2nd child of Jasper and Myrtle Spencer.  He was born into poverty, but I imagine that his parents still oohed and awed over their new bundle of joy, glad to welcome a new member into their happy little family.

Unfortunately, their happiness didn’t last long.  Less than 2 years later Spencer’s father died.  His mother couldn’t afford to keep him and his brother, and Spencer was shipped off to live with his Aunt and Uncle.

We don’t know much about his early life, but I think he must have been a precocious child, exploring his world, figuring out how things work, and asking why often enough to make the most understanding of caregivers nuts.  Then when Spencer was 7, his uncle, his 2nd father, died as well.  

Spencer had to grow up quickly.  When he was only 12 he left school and started working in the local spool mill making wooden spools that thread would be wound on.  He had to help support his Aunt and himself.  He had only an elementary school education.  Most people in Spencer’s situation would have continued to work in the mill until it closed, or they died, but Spencer was different.

When he found out the paper mill was installing electricity he applied to be an installer, despite knowing nothing about electricity.  In the rural town he lived in there was no-one to teach him, but he gathered up all of the reading material he could find on the subject and taught himself.  He was one of only 3 people that were hired to electrify the mill.

In 1912 the Titanic sank and Spencer turned 18.  He had become interested in wireless communication after learning about the wireless operators on the Titanic and joined the Navy so he could explore it further.  He was in the Navy for less than 2 years.  He was discharged early due to a chronic ear disease, but he wasted no time while he was there.  He became an expert on radio technology while he was in the Navy, and used his spare time to teach himself trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, and metallurgy.  He studied every textbook he could get his hands on while standing watch at night.

When he left the Navy he got a job in Boston at the Wireless Specialty Apparatus Company, which designed and manufactured crystal radios.  His bother worked there too.  Both of them had the title “radio electrician.”

The Wireless Specialty Apparatus Company was absorbed by RCA sometime in the 1920’s.  It is not clear if that was the impetus for Spencer leaving the Wireless Specialty Apparatus company, but he started working for Raytheon in 1925.  He again followed his brother who was already working for Raytheon when Spencer made the move.  

Spencer’s brother appears to have left Raytheon soon after Spencer joined the company.  In 1928 he filed a patent for his Spencer Thermostat and started the Spencer Thermostat Company.

Fortunately for quick cooking enthusiasts, Spencer didn’t follow his brother’s lead.  For the next 20 years, he worked at Raytheon on radio and radar systems eventually earning the Distinguished Public Service Award from the US Navy for his important research into magnetrons during World War II.  

In 1940 the British set out on a scientific mission headed by Sir Henry Tizard.  Their goal was to bring a black tin trunk to the United States that was filled with items that were strategically important for the war effort.  Their mission was risky.  If the trunk fell into enemy hands it could have been disastrous for the allies, but the risk turned out to be worth it.

One of the items in the trunk was a cavity magnetron developed by British physicists Henry Boot and John Randall.  It was pivotal in our radar design.

A magnetron is basically a vacuum tube that generates microwaves.  A basic vacuum tube consists of a negatively charged cathode on one side of the tube and a positively charged anode on the other.  The cathode is heated till it is so hot that electrons gain enough energy to escape from the cathode and travel toward the positively charged anode.

In a magnetron, the cathode is in the middle of the tube and the anode is a ring that surrounds the cathode.  But that is not what makes a magnetron special.  The anode also has holes or slots cut in it called resonate cavities.  There is also a powerful magnet under the anode that creates a magnetic field.

Because of the magnetic field when the electrons try to travel from the cathode to the anode they are forced to travel in a curved path around the cathode, and while the electrons are whipping around the cathode they are also passing the cavities in the anode.  The cavities resonate and emit microwave radiation.  The size of the cavities determines the resonate frequency.

You can think of it kind of like blowing through a whistle.  The air that goes straight through the whistle is like the electrons traveling directly between the cathode to the anode.  But some of the air escapes through the hole in the top of the whistle - which is like the groves in the anode.  The air escaping through the top of the whistle resonates at a frequency that creates a sound wave.  In the magnetron the resonate frequency creates microwaves.  

Boot and Randall’s magnetron design was an improvement over previous designs.  Their design was both stronger and more powerful than previous designs, making it possible to install radar in smaller air crafts.

Magnetrons are used in radar systems, and they were extremely important to the war effort during World War II because they were used to find enemy ships, submarines, and planes.  Without radar, military personnel would have to actually visually see the enemy vessel to know where to target their weapons.  

But there was a problem with the magnetron too.  It was very hard to make.  The war effort required 1000s of magnetrons, but each device took a skilled machinist weeks to complete.  They had to be machined out of solid copper, which was both time consuming and wasted a lot of metal.

In 1941 Spencer invented a machine that could mass produce magnetrons for use in radar sets.  His method stamped cross sections of the magnetron out of thin copper and silver solder.  The cross sections were then stacked up into the shape of the magnetron and cooked in a conveyer belt oven until the pieces fused together into a whole magnetron, kind of like a layer cake.  His invention increased the production of magnetrons from 17 per day to 2600 per day.  

He also developed to ways to make the radar sets that the magnetrons were used in sensitive enough to detect German u-boats from fairly high up in the sky.

He eventually racked up over 300 patents and an honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts.  He also became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers, became senior vice president, and a member of the Board of Directors at Raytheon and had a building named after him at Raytheon.  All with almost no formal education.

Then in 1945, Spencer was standing in front of an active radar set at Raytheon and noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted.

The myth is that Spencer had a chocolate bar in his pocket and he noticed that it had melted, but noticing that chocolate, which melts at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, less than body temperature, doesn’t seem like something that would be terribly notable.

According to Spencer’s Grandson George Spencer Jr, Spencer liked to feed squirrels and chipmunks and carried a peanut cluster bar in his pocket to feed the little critters during his lunch break.  It was a melt-resistant peanut cluster bar that Spencer found melted in his pocket that peaked his curiosity.  

Spencer was not the first person that noticed that things melted around radar,  but he was the first that bothered to figure out why.  He was curious about what had happened, so, like any good scientist, he experimented.  First, he put popcorn kernels near the magnetron and watched them all pop - making the very first microwave popcorn.  Then he put an egg in a kettle and positioned the magnetron to direct the microwaves into the hole in the kettle.  The egg ended up exploding in the face of one of Spencer’s coworkers.  

Then Spencer created the first microwave oven.  He connected a high-density electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed metal box that would keep the microwaves from escaping and did further experimentation by placing food in the box and monitoring it’s temperature as the microwaves cooked it.

Spencer and Raytheon filed for the first microwave oven related patent on October 8th, 1945.  It was called a “Method of Treating Foodstuffs.”

In 1947 the first commercial microwave oven hit the market.  It was called the RadaRange.  It was 6 feet tall, weighed 750 pounds and cost $5000 (that is about $45,000 in 2018 dollars).  It also had to be connected to a water line because the magnetron had to water cooled.  It wasn’t a big seller; however one was installed in the galley of the nuclear-powered merchant ship the NS Savannah in 1961 and it remains there now. 

The microwave was introduced to the domestic market in 1955 under license to the Tappan Stove company.  It was a large wall unit that sold for $1295 - or about $12,000 in today’s money.  It also didn’t sell well.  Not only was it super pricey, the average domestic consumer didn’t really know about microwave technology.

In 1967 microwaves finally started to gain a place in American homes.  Amana, a subsidiary of Raytheon produced a smallish Radarange that could fit on a countertop.  It cost $495, about $3700 today, which was relatively affordable - especially when compared to prior offerings.  

In 1970 there were about 40,000 microwaves in US homes - by 1975 there were a million.  By 1986 25% of US homes had a microwave, now that number is around 90%.

However in recent years sales of microwaves have been on a downward trend due to concerns over microwave safety and potential nutritional impacts of microwaving.

If you are not sure if the microwave should have a place in your home be sure to listen to the next episode of Hang Your Hat.


Since starting this show I have been consistently surprised by the history behind the mundane objects in our homes, and microwaves have been no exception.  Who would have guessed that they were the brainchild of a man with an elementary school education, and a direct result of World War II technological innovation?

If you would like to know the backstory behind one of the objects in your home let me know.  I am always looking for a great new story to tell.  

You can drop me a comment on hangyourhatpodcast.com or you can email me at hangyourhatpodcast@gmail.com.  

Hang Your Hat Podcast is a member of Patreon.  If you would like to help support the show please consider becoming a patron by going to Patreon.com/hangyourhat    

If you are not up to becoming a patron but would still like to support the show please leave a review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, or just let a friend know about the show.

And as always, thanks for listening.





Episode 26: The Future of Toilets

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Toilets in the US haven't changed much since the 1930's but change is on the horizon. Advancements in toilet technology will make us healthier, reduce the amount of time we spend cleaning, and even make deep space exploration possible.  Find out how on this week's episode of Hang Your Hat.  

Show Transcript:

Hi, I’m Amy, and this is Hang Your Hat, Episode 26:  The Future of toilets.

It was May 5th, 1961, and Alan Shepard, the first American in space was hovering 101.2 nautical miles above the Earth in his Mercury #7 space capsule, and he had a problem.  The problem started before the launch even occurred.  

The Mercury Redstone 3 mission was scheduled to launch at 7:20 that morning, but there was a lot of pre-work that had to be done before the launch, so Shepard was suited up and getting settled into the capsule by 5:15 that morning knowing that he would have to wait over two hours in the confining suit before he would reach for the stars.

At 7:05 the launch was held for another hour to let the cloud cover clear and fix a power supply.  Then it halted yet again to reboot a computer at the Goddard Space Flight Center.  By this time Shepard had been sitting in his suit for hours, and he needed to pee.

A couple of months prior to launch day, a student named Brenda Kemmerer had written to NASA asking where the first man in space would use the toilet, and Freeman Quimby from the Office of Life Science Programs at NASA wrote back that, "The first spaceman is not expected to have "to go'."  

That's right, NASA, who had a meticulously laid out launch plan, had done through testing, and had thought of numerous contingencies, had neglected to provide their astronaut a way to use the restroom. To be fair, this really wasn't a complete oversight on their part,  Shepard's mission was only expected to last about 15 minutes, and they had expected Shepard to be able to hold it that long.

But there Shepard was, sitting on the launch pad with no place to go and a desperate need to do so.

When Shepard notified the crew that he couldn't wait any longer and needed to be let out to use the facilities he was told no - it would take far too long.  So Sheppard went in his suit.  As the urine flowed through his suit it shorted out electrodes that were monitoring his heart and respiration and they had to be turned off - the launch wasn't delayed further to repair them.  Shepard was launched into space sitting in a puddle of his own urine.

As we look toward the future humans often look to the stars.  We have dreams of living on the moon or mars, or traveling the galaxy in spacecraft bravely exploring new worlds.  With the recent launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket that future seems closer than ever; however, part of that future vision is often overlooked, just as it was overlooked by NASA during that first flight, is how we will use the restroom.

In our last Episode, The Throne I explored the history of the toilet from the Neolithic period to today.  On today's episode, I am going to explore the future of the toilet, from ones that analyze your urine to detect diseases to ones that recycle urine into drinking water.  

Through the years the NASA space program has experimented with a lot different toilet technologies, some more successful than others.  After Shepard’s very wet first excursion into space, NASA did a bit more preparation for its second mission.  When Gus Grissom went up in the Mercury-Redstone 4 he was outfitted with two pairs of rubber pants that we wore simultaneously.  His urine was collected in a reservoir between the two layers of rubber.  It pretty much worked, but it was uncomfortable and it was a really good thing that his trip into space was too short for him to need to do more than urinate.

NASA’s next step was creating an external urine collection device or UCD.  It turns out that another US government agency, the CIA had already been working on these since 1955 for use on the U-2 spy plane, but they were not letting NASA in on the secret and NASA started from scratch.

BF Goodrich was the company making the space suits at the time so they created the first UCD prototype - it leaked.

NASA then hired James McBarron to take over the project.  Mc Barron turned to condoms for inspiration and made a condom like tube that would fit over the astronaut's genitalia and was attached to an external storage container on the other end.  McBarron’s device was used for the rest of the Mercury project.

The Apollo missions had long enough time in space that NASA had to address fecal outputs as well.  Their initial fecal collection unit consisted of a plastic bag with an adhesive ring that was used to adhere the bag to the bottom of the astronaut while they did their business after which it would be ripped off like a band-aid.  It was not popular among crew members.

Space toilets came into their own when the space shuttle went into action and female crew members were added to the ship’s rosters.

In the space shuttle a permanent toilet was affixed to the wall of the shuttle and crew members urinated into a funnel that directed urine with the help of air pressure - basically urine was sucked away and into a storage container with the help of something very similar to a household vacuum.  Fecal waste followed a similar path but astronauts used a tight fitting toilet seat rather than a funnel.  

Unfortunately, the tanks that housed the waste on the shuttle missions we not easily accessible and they couldn't be changed out mid-flight which limited mission duration.

The basic operation of the toilets on the international space station is very similar to the toilets on the shuttle missions, in that air pressure is still used to direct waste products from their initial collection points to storage containers, but due to the length of time that toilets are used on the ISS they are extremely accessible and allow for maintenance and their storage tanks can be changed out as needed.  Improvements have also been made in the consistency of air pressure and the contours of the toilet seats used on the ISS.

However, most recent development in space toilet technology is also the most important because it is one of the things that increases our ability to participate in deep space travel.  One of the biggest challenges in doing a deep space mission is bringing along all of the supplies that humans need to survive deep space - or really any space - food and water.  Water is especially problematic because it is really heavy, and the heavier a spaceship the more power it needs to get into space and the more expensive the mission becomes.

Back in 2009 astronauts on the international space station started doing something that significantly reduces the amount of water that we humans need to bring into space, recycling their urine.  Unlike Bear Grills, they used something called a Urine Processor Assembly to remove all of the gross-out of the urine and were able to reclaim about 75% of the water in their urine.

Since then additional improvements have been made.  In 2016 a chemical pretreatment called Alternate Urine Pretreatment (AUP) was added to the urine at the time of flushing.  This new treatment increases the amount of water that can be reclaimed from urine, and NASA believes that this new treatment could increase the recovery rate to as much as 90%.  

This new technology will significantly reduce the amount of water that astronauts need to take on deep space missions while simultaneously allowing for longer mission duration - bringing things like manned missions to Mars closer than they have ever been before.

Back here on Earth, the latest in toilet technology is all about comfort and convenience.  

Imagine this:

 It is the middle of the night and you have just been awoken by the persistent urgings of your bladder.  You reluctantly pull yourself from the warm embrace of your bed and stumble through the dark to your bathroom.  Your toilet notices your approach and emits a warm glow.  There is no need to turn on the light.  As you approach the toilet seat warms to your preferred temperature.  You do your business and then discover that the toilet paper roll is empty.  Not to worry.  The toilet extends a small wand that washes you with warm water and then warm air dries you.  You stumble back to bed, still half asleep, quickly fall back into dreamland.  In the morning the toilet reports the results of the analysis that it performed on last night’s deposit and recommends that you increase your water intake.

It seems like the stuff of a near future sci-fi flick, like the hoverboard from "Back To The Future".  However, unlike the hoverboard which still in multimillion-dollar prototype mode, toilets with features like these are actually available to buy and put in your home today.

For example, the Numi Toilet by Kohler, which is available for purchase right now has a night light, heated seat, bidet with temperature controlled water, and an air dryer, a deodorizer (which makes “poopourri” obsolete), music and feet warmers that are all controlled from a touchpad screen.

I live in a fairly small town but there is a store that sells them that is less than 60 miles away from my house, and I can order one from my local Home Depot.  If I wanted to shell out nearly $6000 for a toilet I could have one in my house tomorrow.

While toilets like these may not be that common yet here in the US, they are part of a growing market.  Companies that make toilets are hiring thousands of engineers to develop the latest in toilet technology.  The Japanese toilet manufacturer Toto alone employees 1,500 engineers that are working on toilet related technology.

All of that research is doing a lot to improve not only our bathroom experience but the way the toilet itself functions as well.

One of the big benefits of this new toilet technology is water conservation - despite the use of the bidet rather than toilet paper.

Currently, the national standard for toilet water usage is 1.6 gallons per flush, but these new toilets are moving down to 1 gallon per flush.  One of the reasons this is possible is that the bidets on the toilets make the use of toilet paper unnecessary.

Toilet paper is actually really hard on sewer lines, and the less water is used the more likely a sewer line is going to get plugged up by toilet paper.  So while toilet paper is in use, there is a limit on how low water usage can go.  When toilet paper is eliminated, much less water is necessary to flush the toilet.

You may be thinking that the savings in the volume of water used would be negated by the bidet’s use of water, but that is probably not the case.  The bidet actually doesn’t use that much water, and when you combine that with the fact that there is a lot of water used in the production of toilet paper, the net water used still seems to be less than the current average.

The advancement that I am looking most forward to having in my own home is smart cleaning technology.  If you look at the underside of your toilet bowl rim right now you will probably find a bunch of holes lining the underside of the rim.  These holes are where the water comes from that rinses the sides of the bowl when you flush.  You may have also noticed when you clean your toilet that these little holes like to get gunked up and clogged with mineral deposits and they are not very easy to clean.  New toilet technology is making those little holes obsolete.  

The Japanese company Toto is replacing those little holes with something they are calling the tornado flush - it consists of two jets of water that spin the water in the bowl at high speed removing the grime in the bowl.  One of their toilets also recognizes when you are about to take a seat and sprays a bit of water on the side of the bowl before you sit.  After studying the tribology coefficient of friction, which is basically the science of how surfaces interact, that found that things you might find in the toilet stick to porcelain when it is wet.  So that little spray of water keeps the bowl cleaner longer.

Toto also has a feature that electrolyzes the water at the end of the flush.  Water flows over anodized cathodes that pulls out dissolved salts like sodium and chlorine, creating a slightly acidic solution that will kill bacteria when it enters the bowl, keeping it cleaner, longer.  They have also added a “photo-catalytic” surface to the bowl.  When combined with the 220 wavelength ultraviolet light that is shined into the bowl once a day anything that is biodegradable in the bowl breaks down.

The American toilet manufacture American Standard is incorporating some of its new cleaning solutions into less expensive models. Granted these solutions are not as high tech as the Toto models, but there is something to be said about making them affordable for the masses.  For example, their “ActiClean” system has a separate flush that releases cleaning solution directly into the toilet’s tank.  My favorite of their innovations is actually their simplest.  If you have ever cleaned the exterior of a toilet you have probably noticed the mounting points and the impressions of the toilet tubes on the back of the toilet.  In my house, these areas of the toilet seem to get dirtier faster than any other area in my house.  It feels like I can clean them, put the cleaning supplies away, then immediately return to the bathroom and they are already gross again.  American standard is making toilets without these weird flat areas or grime grabbing curves.  Instead, some top their new toilets have a sleek cylinder base that goes pretty much straight from the base to the floor.  When I read about these my immediate thought was - why didn’t these already exist, in retrospect, it seems like a painfully obvious design choice.

The benefits of these new design elements and innovations are not always readily apparent to buyers, however, and that has been a major hurdle to their adoption here in the US.  Most Americans are not ready to trade in their toilet paper for a bidet regardless of how little water they use.  Combine that with the expense of a high end toilet multiplied by the number of toilets in a typical American household (2 as of the 2011 census), and you end up with a lot of money for a product that Americans are not sure they want to use.  In other words, high-end toilets are proving to be a pretty hard sell in the United States.

However, the expense may not be the biggest hurdle to adoption here in the US.  Smart toilets need the same things that all other smart devices need to run - electricity.  Bathrooms rarely have power outlets near their toilets so there is no place to plug them in, and with bathroom renovations being some of the priciest home renovations the influx of toilet power outlets will likely take some time. 

One important question remains, however; is all of this advancement in comforting toilet technology a good thing?  There is a growing body of research that shows that sitting upright on the toilet is actually damaging to our bodies and that the way our insides bend while we are sitting upright can lead to hemorrhoids and other gastrointestinal issues.

Some scientists now believe that we should go back to the way humans pooped for thousands of years - squatting.  Squatting allows the anorectal angle to straighten requiring less effort to evacuate the bowels.  You do not need to be left out of the fancy toilet technology revolution if you decide to squat though because capitalism has found a way to make squatting profitable.  You could add to your preexisting stupid or smart toilet a platform that makes squatting over the toilet possible, such as the "Lillipad platform", the "Nature’s Platform", or my favorite because of name strength, the "Squatty Potty Toilet Stool".  I wonder if they have realized that their choice of the name toilet stool is especially funny.

I will admit that when a listener requested a show on toilets I did not expect to make a two-part series on the topic.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the history of toilet technology and its use was actually a really interesting topic with a lot of depth.  That being said, I promise that today’s episode will be the last one on toilets - at least for a while.  If you have an idea for an upcoming show that you would like to share you can tell me about it on hangyourhatpodcast.com or you can email me at hangyourhatpodcast@gmail.com.  

You may have heard in last week’s episode that Hang Your Hat Podcast has recently become a member of Patreon.  If you would like to help support the show please consider becoming a patron by going to Patreon.com/hangyourhat  When you become a Patreon subscriber you gain access to our member-only Patreon feed, which will include additional information that didn’t make it into the show, sneak peeks, and informal supplementary podcasts or vlog posts.  

If you are not up to becoming a patron but would still like to support the show please leave a review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, or just let a friend know about the show.

And as always, thanks for listening.


Episode 25: The Throne

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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.  

Excavation of the Skara Brae.  The toilet room is the opening in the upper right of the home.  It is thought to be one of the first examples of a toilet with a drainage system.

Excavation of the Skara Brae.  The toilet room is the opening in the upper right of the home.  It is thought to be one of the first examples of a toilet with a drainage system.

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.

Drainage at the Indus Valley city of Lothal.  It was incredibly advanced and efficient for the time.

Drainage at the Indus Valley city of Lothal.  It was incredibly advanced and efficient for the time.

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.

Public Roman toilets were actually considered dangerous places, and shrines to the goddess Fortuna were often near toilets so that bathroom goers would be protected while doing their business.

Public Roman toilets were actually considered dangerous places, and shrines to the goddess Fortuna were often near toilets so that bathroom goers would be protected while doing their business.

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.

A castle garderobe.  Made famous by the Game of Thrones TV show.  It has a hole in the bottom to allow excrement to escape.

A castle garderobe.  Made famous by the Game of Thrones TV show.  It has a hole in the bottom to allow excrement to escape.

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.

Christchurch Monastery Drainage Diagram 1167 a.d.  Unlike most castles at the time, Christchurch went to lengths to keep the sewage from contaiminating the site or water supply.

Christchurch Monastery Drainage Diagram 1167 a.d.  Unlike most castles at the time, Christchurch went to lengths to keep the sewage from contaiminating the site or water supply.

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.  

Harington's Flush toilet is the forerunner of modern flush toilets.

Harington's Flush toilet is the forerunner of modern flush toilets.

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.

Cumming's Design for the S bend finally made the modern flush toilet possible by keeping sewer gasses from escaping back up the pipe.

Cumming's Design for the S bend finally made the modern flush toilet possible by keeping sewer gasses from escaping back up the pipe.

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.

Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet, but he did popularize it.  His toilet design is the classic that is often seen in old movies and cartoons.

Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet, but he did popularize it.  His toilet design is the classic that is often seen in old movies and cartoons.

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

The toilets that most people have in their houses today are not significantly different than the toilets available in the 1930's.

The toilets that most people have in their houses today are not significantly different than the toilets available in the 1930's.

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.

If you have an idea for a show topic you can let me know about it by leaving a comment on hangyouhatpodcast.com, or by emailing me at hangyourhatpodcast@gmail.com

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And as always, thanks for listening.


Episode 15: The Sun is Gone, but I Have a Light

Light.  It is one of those things that we tend to take for granted until it isn’t available, and then, stumbling around in the dark, the value of light becomes all too clear.  Humans have been figuring out better ways to light our homes for hundreds of years, but in the last 200 years lighting technology has truly advanced, and it all started with the creation of the electric light.

This fortnight's show discusses the history and future of the electric light, the world's oldest working light bulb, Lumens, color temperature, and the coolest lighting event that is going to happen in North America this year, the 2017 Solar Eclipse.

Featured in the Show:

The World's Oldest Working Light Bulb

The Centennial Bulb,  Credit:  Centennialbulb.org

The Centennial Bulb,  Credit:  Centennialbulb.org

The total solar eclipse of 2017's path of totality, stretching from Oregon to South Carolina.  Credit: Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

The total solar eclipse of 2017's path of totality, stretching from Oregon to South Carolina.  Credit: Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com