Who Invented The Toilet?

No, it was not Thomas Crapper. We dispelled that myth in a previous blog a couple of years ago. But the question does come up from time to time, so I’ll take this opportunity for a little history lesson.

Some inventions we associate with famous people, like Thomas Edison and the light bulb. Yet for many modern technologies like automobiles, television, and computers, it’s hard to credit a single individual. These devices resulted from the work of various contributors or developed in incremental stages.

And so it is with toilets. If we define a toilet as any device that flushes away human waste, then toilets date back as far as the beginnings of civilization. Archeologists have identified toilets in Bronze Age ruins dating back thousands of years, and the Roman Empire was renowned for building public toilets and baths. (The word “plumber” comes from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead or “worker in lead.”) These ancient toilets were nothing more than holes in a concrete slab above a flowing stream of water to wash away the droppings. Simple stuff with no moving parts.

Yet what most people regard as toilets are the kind we have in our homes today, with bowls and seats and a handle or button to press to wash away waste. In the absence of indoor toilets, people had to relieve themselves outdoors, which was inconvenient and uncomfortable, especially in frigid weather. Or, they used chamber pots, which then had to be emptied outdoors, also inconvenient – especially for anyone in the vicinity of where the waste was dumped.

(The English term “loo” for a toilet is derived from the French word for water, l’eau. It dates back to the Middle Ages when people living in crowded communities would dump their chamber pots out of windows. Out of courtesy, many would first yell out, Gardez l’eau!, meaning, “Watch out for the water!” Aren’t you glad you live in modern times?)

As noted in our previous blog, the earliest identifiable indoor flush toilet goes back to the late 1500s. Subsequent centuries saw many patents awarded for flush toilets in Europe and our country, although most of these were never commercialized and installed in homes. That’s because while their inventors may have been clever mechanics, they were not full-fledged plumbers.

And that brings us to the crux of the issue. You see, a toilet is analogous to a baseball. A baseball is a key component of the game of baseball, but by itself cannot constitute a baseball game. For that, you need a bat, bases, and players.

Similarly, by itself a toilet is useless. It is only effective when connected to a plumbing system that consists of running water, pipes and a sewer or septic system to convey the waste away. Many early inventors had grasped the mechanics for building toilets that could collect waste in a bowl and dispose of it with the pull of a handle. Yet without an effective system for removing waste from a living area, sewer gas would build up inside. People were better off with outhouses.

It might seem a simple matter to devise a wastewater piping system, but many of the early inventors who tried ran into a fundamental problem of hydraulics. For a plumbing system to do its job correctly requires traps and vents to promote drainage. Traps prevent sewer gases from backing up into the home, while vents prevent traps from siphoning wastewater back into the home. The familiar analogy is to hold a water bottle upside down and watch the water slowly glug out. Put a hole in the top of the bottle and the water will spill out quickly.

Some of the early toilet inventors knew this intuitively and tried to employ traps and vents, but stumbled in not knowing how to position the vents and how big to make them. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that sanitation engineers figured out mathematical formulas for doing this. Once they did so, indoor plumbing took off and evolved into the nice, clean bathrooms we are used to today.

To sum it up, I think it’s a mistake to focus on who invented the toilet. The real credit for the sanitary world we live in today belongs to the plumbing engineers and plumbers of the late 19th century, along with plumbing codes and continuing innovations by plumbing manufacturers and plumbers.

We at Dutton Plumbing are proud to be a part of that progress.