History Of The Toilet: The Men Behind The Flush
The toilet, that all-pervasive piece of pragmatic furniture, is not only an incredibly useful device, but also a symbol of human equality. All must sit down once in awhile, whether they be CEOs or hobos. Many find it to be the spot for their most interesting contemplations and inspirations. It is a time not just to answer nature's call, but to read, reflect, and regather for the day. While the toilet is ubiquitous in our lives, its history isn't widely known. This article will strive to provide some background on the history and evolution of the toilet. It is best read (you guessed it) on the john.
Most sources vary in giving credit to the first inventor of the sit-down toilet. Many attribute the first sit-down design to the Minoans, others give the nod to the Egyptians, and some even give credit to divine inspiration, citing Deuteronomy 23:12-13 which says "And you shall have an implement among your equipment, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and cover your refuse" (though the passage may simply suggest carrying a shovel to bury one's business). Whoever was originally responsible, early sit-down latrines were flushed using no more technology than a dumped bucket of water and an underlying system of pipes. However, this was still a huge step forward for a species that previously just squatted when the urge struck.
The toilet as we know it was still a distant dream in these early days of refuse disposal. It wasn't until the sixteenth century, in London, that the idea for the flushable toilet came into being. Sir John Harrington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I, came up with a blueprint for a "flushing water closet" and implemented one in the Royal Palace. The invention quite pleased the Queen, despite frequent leaks that sent noxious sewer gas into the Royal Powder room. Harrington's head didn't roll for this offense, however, and Elizabeth I simply fortified the smell of her powder room with herbs and flora. Her purported habit of calling the toilet her “John” gives us the slang term that remains today.
Despite a version of the flushing toilet finding a home in the Royal Palace, the idea for the device wasn't patented for commercial use until 1775. Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Crapper was not the patent-holder; it was a watchmaker by the name of Alexander Cummings. Cummings' toilet was designed around a specifically shaped bowl, which allowed the water supply to be brought in low, and for some water to remain after each flush. His toilet was made of copper.
Expanding on Cummings' original patent, cabinetmaker Joseph Bramah replaced the string-valve flushing mechanism with a crank-type device, more similar to what we are accustomed to today. The Bramah toilet, though more efficient and less complicated than Cummings', was very noisy and the leakage of sewer gases remained problematic.
To combat the stench of sewer gas inherent to the early toilet models, Henry Moule developed his Earth Closet in 1860. The Earth Closet operated on a principle similar to modern litter-boxes, dumping ash and dirt onto refuse to leave them odorless. Though effective, this method required owners to dump their pots out by hand, a rather undesirable experience, though perhaps preferable to a constant reek of raw sewage.
Finally, the famous Thomas Crapper and oft-credited John Crapper came along in 1861 with his shop on Marlborough Street in London. Here, Crapper installed a 250-gallon water tank so he could extensively test toilets. His shop enabled him to make discoveries in toilet technology that led to the invention of the pull-chain system, which led to vastly more powerful flushes. He also came up with an airtight seal between toilet and floor that kept gas leakage to a tolerable minimum. To further aid with the gas problem, he patented venting systems which drew the offending odors from the house through a series of pipes.
As Crapper made England a less smelly and more sanitary place, Americans still used outhouses. World War I introduced many Americans to the "crapper," however, and soon Americans were using the flushing toilet like their British brethren.
While they largely go without thought in today's world, toilets represent an extraordinary leap in the living conditions of man which prevent much disease and discomfort. Every time one is flushed, it should be done with a brief moment of reverence for the innovators who made our relatively sewage-free lives possible.