The Fascinating History of Toilets
Unless you’re a plumber, you probably don’t think much about toilets until you need to use one. However, the convenience of modern toilets is a relatively new development in human history. The toilet as we know it has a long and storied history with many ups and downs. To help you appreciate just how good you have it, here is a quick look into how the toilets we use and take for granted came to be:
Toilet Forerunners: The Ancient Minoans (1,700 B.C.)
The Minoan civilization pioneered many water management systems that we use in our cities today. They had advanced systems of aqueducts and pipes to transport drinking water and wastewater. They also had filtering systems that would clean wastewater as it moved toward gardens that were outside of Minoan settlements.
The Minoans constructed elaborate sewer systems below the ground to catch rainwater and other waste runoff. They even had toilets that included built-in water reservoirs for flushing waste. Although these reservoirs were most likely filled by buckets of water, these toilets are thought to be the first flushing toilets in history.
The Public Restrooms of Ancient Rome (600 B.C. – A.D. 476)
The ancient Romans built on the plumbing ideas of the Minoans and developed even more intricate water systems. These systems, spread all over the city of Rome, included aqueducts, drinking fountains, sinks, and public toilets.
Roman public bathhouses included rooms with small holes cut into stone slabs that acted as simple toilets. These slabs encased a stream of flowing wastewater which would carry waste through a sewer system to the Tiber River. After visitors finished using the restroom, they would use sponges on sticks to clean themselves. They would then clean these sponges in a small canal of flowing water by their feet.
Ancient Romans also had another option for using the restroom. On street corners there were large public urine pots used to collect ammonia. They would then use the ammonia as a rudimentary form of bleach to whiten their clothing.
Chamber Pots of Medieval England (600 A.D. – 1485 A.D.)
During the middle ages in Europe, toilet technology, among other knowledge, was lost and people reverted to primitive means of disposing of their waste. The most popular method involved collecting waste in metal or ceramic bowls, called chamber pots. After people used a chamber pot, they would simply dump the contents into the streets outside their homes.
This unsanitary practice led to a widespread foul smell and the spread of many diseases.
Ingenuity of Castle Builders in the 11th Century
Not everything was bleak in sanitation science during the middle ages, however. During the castle-building craze of the 11th century, architects developed a clever means of discarding waste from castles, called garderobes. Garderobes were small rooms that protruded from castle walls that featured a bottomless toilet shaft. The waste would fall through the shaft into a moat or river below.
Garderobes were the first toilets to be incorporated into the structural design of a building. However, they were far from a practical solution for the common man.
The Modern Toilet (1775 — Present)
The modern toilet design can trace its roots to the patent for the first flushing toilet issued in 1775. The patent was granted to Alexander Cummings, a British watchmaker. Years later in 1819, an improved siphon-based design was patented by Albert Giblin. The patent was purchased and made popular by Sir Thomas Crapper, which was, in fact, his real given name.
Since then, different iterations of bowl and tank designs have emerged to make flushing more efficient and to standardize the size of mounting holes and fixtures.
Emerging Toilet Technologies
In recent times there have been many other advances in toilet technology. In many public bathrooms there are automatic flushing toilets that don’t require you to touch them. These toilets make public restrooms more sanitary. Certain models of toilets also include options for electric seat heaters, built in bidet water jet features, and even air blowers.
As society has intensified its focus on protecting the planet and conserving natural water resources, toilets designs have continued to become more streamlined and efficient. New toilets use less water per flush and include options for large and small flush sizes. There is also a push to implement waterless urinals in public restrooms to further conserve water.
Next time you have an urgent need to use the restroom, just be glad you don’t have to use a chamber pot or a Roman public restroom. The technology pioneered by our forbearers allows us to dispose of our waste in the comfort of our homes—that is, as long as your toilet is in good repair. If you are experiencing any problems with your toilet, including leaks, clogs, or any other problem, make sure to contact your local plumber.