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Everyday IP — Flushing out the facts: When was indoor plumbing invented?

Dennemeyer Group / February 12, 2021
Everyday IP — Flushing out the facts: When was indoor plumbing invented?

Thus far, our Everyday IP blog series has covered some of the most common but essential items used by people all over the world — socks and toothbrushes — and tied them to major developments in the history of Intellectual Property. Now, we turn to another thing that we likely take for granted daily, but without which we would not exist in any way as we do today: indoor plumbing.

Answering the question, "When was indoor plumbing invented?" is somewhat complicated. It involves not one single inventor but several innovations that emerged over the course of many centuries. This story also illustrates the importance of securing patent rights: Several figures in plumbing history are known to us because of their patents rather than their original inventions. 

The ancient origins of plumbing

Plumbing as we know it today (interconnected systems of indoor pipes and drains attached to flush toilets and sinks) is not particularly old in the grand scheme of human history. But plumbing, in general, dates back more than five millennia. Systems of water pipes, sewers and latrines began to emerge in ancient Sumer, as well as Egypt, Crete and the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae (near modern-day Stromness in Orkney, Scotland), between 3200 and 1500 BCE. Only two of these involved "indoor plumbing" in any sense: the drain-equipped houses built into the walls of Skara Brae and the indoor water closets seen in Crete under the reign of King Minos. Ancient Rome is known for its intricate system of aqueducts with bronze and lead piping, which prevented waste buildup from public latrines and bathhouses.

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During much of the next 2,000 years or so, while there were undoubtedly systems for disposing of waste and navigating the soiled water out of public places, the vast majority of latrines, like Rome's, were outdoors. For most of the world, the only way to use the bathroom indoors was to employ a chamber pot and manually discard the accumulated waste, often by throwing it out a window and into the street! (Lack of proper sanitation can almost certainly be associated with the large outbreaks of diseases that occurred in these times, such as the bubonic plague's reign of terror during the Middle Ages.)

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The Romans were keen on improving sanitation and built many structures to support that initiative: public latrines, bathhouses and aqueducts like Pont du Gard, which crosses the Gardon River in southern France (pictured above).

Flush toilet development (and initial patents)

The first advancement toward the sort of toilets and indoor plumbing systems like the ones we know today came in 1596. The horrors of the Middle Ages had given way to an explosion of artistic, scientific and philosophical advances within the Renaissance, and it naturally followed that some ingenious mind would begin thinking about the need for sanitation.

Sir John Harrington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I, was mostly known as a poet and essayist when he devised a toilet that flushed, connected to a seat and water cistern: A lever-operated valve would cause water to flow from the tank into the bowl, and the now-soiled water would empty out of the toilet and down a pipe to a cesspool. But because there was no plumbing system to carry everything into a sewer (and the sort of treatment plants we have today), Harrington's toilet was essentially a fancier chamber pot.

Alexander Cummings, a Scottish inventor, improved on Harrington's design in 1775 by adding the "S-trap:" This curving pipe, when used in conjunction with a flush valve, ensured that some unsoiled water would always flow back into the bowl, and the wastewater would flow into a cesspool. Cummings was also the first inventor to receive a patent for a toilet; Harrington likely could have done so but never did.

Indoor plumbing becomes the norm

Flush toilets were not affordable for the average person at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, indoor plumbing was rudimentary and extremely rare. Architect Isaiah Rogers installed flushable water closets and a wastewater disposal system in Boston's opulent Tremont House hotel in 1829, and the White House had running water, but those were for wealthy travelers and the U.S. president, respectively; they meant little to the laborers and farmers on whom the economies of America, the U.K. and Europe were dependent.

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Moving the toilet indoors was a long time coming, but without proper plumbing and sewage systems to carry the waste away, it was essentially a chamber pot on a stool (pun intended!).

Sewage systems slowly but surely became prevalent within major urban centers throughout the mid-to-late 19th century: Government and public health officials began to realize the dangers posed by diseases that spread due to poor sanitation. There is no specific inventor of the modern sewer, as it was the product of many urban civil engineers. The second half of this century also saw many notable improvements to the flush toilet. Inventors like Thomas Twyford created and patented either new toilets or components that made them operate more efficiently.

This was also the era of Thomas Crapper: The English sanitary engineer did not invent the flush toilet, but he patented various other plumbing and drainage devices, including the floating ballcock (yes, that is its real name), which allows toilet tanks to fill during the flushing process without overflowing, and then drain. Crapper was also responsible for popularizing bathroom systems as a marketable product, in defiance of Victorian sensibilities; his business lives on as one of the U.K.'s major bathroom furnishers.

Additionally, while the term "crap" existed well before Crapper started selling his toilets and bathroom fixtures, American soldiers in World War I, seeing the pioneer's name on chain-pull toilets in England and France, did bring "crapper" home with them as a euphemism for a toilet.

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Not letting the matter go: In the 21st century, inventors keep adding new features to an otherwise straightforward piece of sanitary hardware, turning toilets into an at-home spa-like experience.   

The 20th century finally saw the proper combination of public policy efforts and inventor ingenuity for widespread indoor plumbing and flush toilets to become the norm. Even though wartime production demands limited the use of steel and copper for piping, inventors used plastics and cast iron instead, and today, PVC pipes are quite common all over the world.

While it is not always pleasant to think about bathrooms, toilets and sewage systems, our lives would be very different — and not for the better — without them. Sometimes that is how inventions are. No matter what your latest creation may be, the experts at Dennemeyer are ready to help you register it as IP in all relevant jurisdictions and ensure your rights are protected.