Omnia Mechanical Group

571 Timpson Place Bronx, NY 10455

Phone: 212-534-2500

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Who Invented the Toilet? History and Fun Facts

The throne, the John, and the facilities. The toilet has many names (some more crude than others), but all are an ode to an engineering marvel crucial to sanitation and daily living. It is a centuries-old invention that has changed little since the 19th century but has evolved from the earliest iterations over 4,000 years ago.

With such a long history, it begs the question: Who invented the toilet? The answer depends on your definition of the toilet. The flushing toilet is usually the point of reference for most people, but even that has an interesting and mysterious history. Discover the invention of the toilet and the pioneers that contributed to its modern design.

Who Invented the Toilet: A Journey Through Time

Earliest Iterations

When you consider that most people spend an average of 92 days of their lives on the toilet or visit the bathroom six or seven times per day, it is not shocking that ancient societies put a lot of thought into human waste management. There is speculation and some suggestive archeological excavations that hint at 4,000-year-old drainage systems in northwest India. The evidence suggests the possibility of Neolithic-era toilets, but it is unclear.

The honor of the first toilet usually goes to the Scots or the Greeks. If you believe the Scots invented it, the toilet appeared in a settlement dating back to 3,000 BC. Alternatively, if you believe the Greeks are the innovative people who invented the toilet, you also believe the first toilet appeared in the Palace of Knossos, built in 1700 BC. The palace toilet included large earthenware pans and a connected water supply for flushing.

Romans

The Romans were among the first societies to have public restrooms or toilets. By 315 AD, Rome had over 140 public toilets. While these toilets had no flushing mechanism, they had a gravity-fed channel under each commode, rinsing waste away and out to a larger water body, like a river. The Romans were also among the first societies credited with large plumbing or sewage networks that helped supply cities with fresh water and eliminate waste.

While the Romans were not among the civilizations that invented the toilet, they were among the first societies to see the value in public sanitation. Still, their ingenuity was not perfect. The public restrooms usually had a few wiping sticks — sponges attached to a short wooden handle. People would wipe themselves with the sponge and rinse it in another small channel in front of the toilet. Once finished, the people returned the sponge to its proper place for the next person to use.

Medieval Times and The John

In Medieval England, toilet innovation seemed to take a significant backstep. People used potties or garderobes instead of intricate devices and sanitary sewage systems. Potties were large pans that people used to go to the bathroom in. When they finished, they opened a door or window and threw the contents into the street.

A garderobe was a little more discreet and sophisticated because it was a room that protruded over a moat. It was usually only found in more affluent communities. The room contained a hole in the floor; people would dump their waste into the moat below. As you can expect, the smell in more populated areas was rank.

Europe discovered modern plumbing several centuries after Roman plumbing and the first known toilets. While many people may not know this, the first flushing toilet has ties to royalty. Sir John Harrington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, was the first person who invented the toilet, at least a rudimentary version of the flushing toilet we use today.

In 1592, Sir John created a toilet with a raised cistern and a downpipe. Water ran through the downpipe to flush the waste. Despite the success of his invention, Sir John only made two water closets: one for himself and the other for his godmother.

Colonial Times and Modern Improvements

Sir John invented the first working flush toilet, but he rarely gets the credit he deserves because he didn’t patent the idea. The first official patent for the flush toilet would not appear for almost 200 years. In 1775, a watchmaker, Alexander Cummings, created an S-shaped pipe under the toilet basin. The purpose of the pipe was to keep sewage odors out of the house or restroom.

Despite his invention, the number of toilets in Britain and other parts of the world did not match the population. The presence of too many people and not enough toilets resulted in the spread of disease and stink.

19th Century and False Credit

In the early 19th century, the population of Britain was increasing exponentially. In larger cities like London and Manchester, 100 people might share a single toilet. The excess sewage spilled into the streets and rivers, contaminating the water supply. From the 1830s through most of the 1850s, thousands of people died from water-borne diseases, including cholera.

In 1848, the government mandated that all new homes have a water closet or ash-pit privy. Despite the legislative effort, the pollution level came to a head in the summer of 1858, when rotting sewage led to the Great Stink. The government commissioned the construction of a sewer and sanitation system.

In 1861, Prince Edward hired Thomas Crapper, a plumber and businessman, to construct several lavatories in royal palaces. While Mr. Crapper did not invent the first toilet, he did invent the first successful line of commercial toilets. Still, he often gets the credit, maybe because of his fun name or because he patented several toilet-related devices, including an updated version of the S-shaped pipe and the ballcock, that are still used today.

Who Invented the Toilet: The Complicated Road Toward Sanitation

Keep Things Sanitary With Service Contracts

Many people and societies contributed to the design of the modern flush toilet. Still, as for who invented the toilet, the answer likely comes down to the contributions of three ingenious individuals: Sir John Harrington, Samual Cummings, and, yes, Thomas Crapper. Still, regardless of the actual inventor, the devices are critical to daily life and building operations.

If you want to keep your facilities flushing, sign an annual service contract with Sanitary Plumbing. Our service contracts ensure your property never misses routine maintenance or inspections. Call 212-734-5000 to learn more.


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