We attribute our longer modern life spans to scientific advances in medicine, and by doing so we neglect the incredible benefits we’re achieved by creating better ways to dispose of human waste.
For a history of toilets and sewer systems through the ages, please proceed…..
3,000 B.C., Skara Brae, Modern Day Scotland
An ancient ruin on the main island of the Orkney Islands in modern Scotland, named Skara Brae contains devices/receptacles in each of the dwellings with a very sophisticated (at least for the neolithic age) drainage system and we can figure out no other use of these than that they were toilets. If this is true, those barbaric neolithic residents of this village appear to be the first people to invent toilets and a sewer system.
1,700 B.C., Palace of Knossos, Crete
The next evidence of a toilet being designed into a dwelling was found in the ruins of the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean. It was a proper water flush toilet similar to what we use today, except the toilet was flushed by pouring water into it from a jug. This palace had a sophisticated water management system where fresh water was brought in via aqueduct from a river 10 km away and waste water was taken away via a closed system that moved the waste water into a sewage field away from the palace.
The toilets had proper seats as ours do today and the only significant difference is the way the flush was activated.
The homes of the wealthy in ancient Egypt had rooms in them that contained toilets and I’ve also found several references to their having been a sewage system, but I have not found details on how extensive it was. In most homes, toilet seats were as shown above, and you excreted your waste into a bucket filled with sand. Someone then emptied the bucket. Common people did it themselves, the wealthy had it done by slaves.
I’ve found references to the making of sewer pipe, initially from clay and straw, and later from clay, but better, but I’ve found no references to sewer systems, so I’m afraid the details of the ancient Egyptians did is still an open question (at least to me).
In my quest to find out how the people of ancient Greece solved these issues (or didn’t) I found myself blocked. It appears everything the Greeks did initially, the Romans re-did after they become the dominant power in that part of the world. Thus the details of what the Greeks did are either buried in subsequent Roman construction, or the ancient Greek method of process sewage was pretty bad (such as throwing buckets of human waste out into the street).
We as a people developed pretty good sewage system during the age of Rome. They had a complex series of sewers covered by stones. Not too dissimilar to modern sewers. Water flowed into the system from toilets, the water flowed through the various sewer sections into the main pipe and eventually into nearby rivers or streams.
Although Romans did still throw human waste into streets, their sanitation system is admired for their innovation, especially considering that they started building it around 800 B.C.
As the common people could not afford toilets in their homes, there were public bath houses containing public toilet rooms. The ruins on one such room is depicted in the picture above.
You and your neighbors could have a nice chat about the gossip of the day while evacuating your bowels together. Clear their notice of privacy was quite different from ours.
Why Europe? Why not China or Peru?
The answer is because the modern flush toilet was invented in Europe (England actually). So tracing it’s development from the earliest day to modern times requires we start in Europe.
Much to my surprise, and perhaps to yours as well, for the wealthy of medieval Europe, toilets were not as primitive as you might think.
John the Fearless was the King of France from 1409 to 1413. The toilet in his castle in Paris survives to this day and it’s incredibly modern in it’s construction.
It was in a heating room, had a cushioned seat, and the waste material fell into a shaft that descended 25 meters (about 75 feet) into a stone lined septic pit.
Not bad for the middle ages.
Of course if you were a peasant you simply threw your bucket of human waste into the street where the rain water washed it into the pond that provided your drinking water, but for the aristocracy, their bathrooms were almost as nice as ours today.
The Flush Toilet
Contrary to popular belief, the flush toilet was NOT invented by someone named Thomas Crapper. The flush toilet was invented by John Harrington in 1596 (yes, that long ago).
Thomas Crapper came along in in the later part of the 19th century and perfected the flush toilet and started (what was for his time) mass production. In 1861 Thomas Crapper opened his own business manufacturing brass works and he was an early advocate of sanitary plumbing.
In 1880, his plumbing company (Thomas Crapper and Co of London) was hired to provide the plumbing for the large home of Prince Edward (the future Edward VII) and this order included 30 lavatories complete with cedarwood seats and enclosures. Thomas Crapper and Co continued to receive royal warrants from Edward as King and his successor George V.
The P Trap
Since all drains drain into the sewer system, and the sewer system smells like a sewer, how come you never smell the sewer in any of the drains in your home?
The answer is fairly small amount of water that is captured in a “trap” that exists below the drain. If you look under your sink you’ll see it.
For toilets it’s built into the toilet itself.
The P trap captures water which forms a vapor barrier preventing sewer smells from entering your home.
Part of every drain system are vents, which are riser pipes that protrude through the roofs of our building. If you go up on the roof and sniff one of the vent pipes, you will smell the sewer gases. One of the reasons vents exist is to allow sewer gases to escape, because if they are allowed to build up, they can become explosive.
Believe it or not, the P trap was patented in 1775, and it’s basic design has not changed since.
Yes that little bit of water is all it takes to keep the sewer gases out of your home.
Large Scale Sewage Processing
The hygiene benefits of better toilets by themselves is not enough. The waste material has to go somewhere. People who live on large enough pieces of property created proper septic tanks in which the decomposition of the waste products into crop friendly nutrients could occur without risk to human health.
In the cities there was (and is) insufficient room for such solutions.
For this reason we’ve invented sewage systems.
Early and fairly crude (by modern standards) sewage systems were built in ancient Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley in India, Crete, and Greece. The Romans built fairly good systems, but during the dark ages they fell into disrepair.
When industrialization and urbanization arrived in the middle of the 19th century, existing sewage solutions (of throwing buckets of waste into the street) were no longer sufficient.
In London, tens of thousands of people died in Cholera epidemics in 1832, 1849, and 1855. In 1858 London went through The Great Stink, when the smell of untreated human waste in the River Thames became overpowering, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was commissioned appointed with the task of constructing a vast underground sewer system for the safe removal of human waste.
Although the Royal Commissioner Edwin Chadwick recommended the waste material be pumped onto farm land to be used as fertilizer, this was not done. Instead the waste material was piped away from population center and dumped into natural waterways.
As population centers got larger and simply pumping raw sewage into existing waterways was no longer adequate, in the last 19th century we figured out we can expedite the process of sewage break down by adding chemicals.
I could go on and on about the development and improvements in sewage treatment, but rather let me refer to you the Wikipedia article on this subject which covers it in enormous detail. Select the link in the prior sentence for access to that article.
The Future of Toilets has Arrived
T0day, in July of 2014, 2.5 billion people lack access to proper sanitation and practice what is called open defecation, which is to say the defecate in the open. Let me emphasize that number is 2.5 BILLION, which is 40% of all of us.
In the industrialized parts of the world we’ve developed sophisticated sewage infrastructure which was not built up over night and was not cheap.
Although it is theoretically possible to “just build” sewage treatment for the developing world, perhaps a better solution is a toilet that treats human waste in a safe and healthy way without the need to be hooked to a sewage treatment infrastructure.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently held a contest to find such a toilet and they’ve selected a winner, which was developed at the California Institute of Technology.
The future of the toilet is now here. The next step is getting them deployed around the developing world.
By the way, we do bathroom remodeling. When you’re ready to talk about remodeling your bathroom…..