The toilet A brief history

In the best traditions of QI and Trivial Pursuit we thought that we would share with you some facts about the history of indoor plumbing.

Standardised plumbing can be traced back to around 3,000 BC when the Indus River Valley civilisation used earthen plumbing pipes to provide water and drain wastes.

The number one material used for plumbing work today, copper was used by the Egyptians to lay their own pipe – some 2,500 years ago. Archeologists have recovered a portion of a water plumbing system from the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.

The word plumber was given to us by the Romans. It comes from the Latin ‘plumbum’ which means lead. In Rome, pipes were originally made from lead. People who worked with lead were called ‘plumbarius’ which was eventually shortened to the word we use today.

The flushing toilet was invented by John Harington in 1596. A writer and poet, Harington was a prominent courtier in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. He is best known today for writing A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), a political allegory and a coded attack on the monarchy. His New Discourse described a forerunner to the modern flush toilet that was installed at his house at Kelston in Somerset.

Harington called his flushing toilet Ajax, a play on the slang word for toilet ‘a jakes’. The book made political allusions to the Earl of Leicester that angered the Queen. It was a coded attack on the stercus or excrement that was poisoning society with torture and state-sponsored ‘libels’ against his relatives Thomas Markham and Ralph Sheldon. After the publication of this work he was banished from the court but spared trial in the Star Chamber.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Thomas Crapper further developed the flushing toilet and developed the chain pull cistern with a ballcock mechanism for filling it. He did much to popularise the siphonic indoor flushing toilet as it is known today. Both Harington and Crapper have given the English-speaking world (mainly US) slang words for the toilet – the john and the crapper.