Who Invented the Flush Toilet?

I usually wrote an introduction to explain how I ended up asking myself the question leading to this article. Sometimes, it’s about what I’m reading, watching on TV, or just doing with my life. In this particular case, I’m not sure it’s necessary. I mean, you probably can guess where I was when I thought of:

Who Created the Flush Toilet?

The answer is definitely not Thomas Crapper! Yes, it would have been perfect, but it’s just a joke that took a life of itself. The idea originated from a spoof biography titled “Flushed with Pride” written by Wallace Reyburn and published in 1969. The thing is, there really was a Thomas Crapper. Born in 1836, he worked in the “plumbing industry” and built the first bathroom showroom in the world in Marlborough Road, Chelsea, in 1866. He even sold his products to the British Royal Family. The thing is, the flushing toilet existed long before Crapper was born.

How long before you may ask? 300 years earlier, actually—during the 16th century. Of course, as you may have guessed, we are not talking here about those latrines connected to a constant stream of water in order to carry away waste (5,000 years ago). It is really about the flush toilet.

Sir John Harington was an English courtier, author, and translator. Also, he was Queen Elizabeth I’s godson—not necessarily his favorite as his writings apparently caused him to fall in and out of favor with Her Majesty.

Around 1591, Harington worked on a device he called the Ajax—it seems that, at that time, the word “jakes” was slang for toilets, Harington was known to be playful that way—that was installed at his manor in Kelston. This “flush toilet” had a valve designed to let water out of the tank (7.5 gallons of water were required by flush) and a wash-down design to empty the bowl. If we are to believe Harington, when water was scarce, up to 20 people could use his commode between flushes.

Sir John Harington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Five years later, Sir John Harington talked about his invention in the book called “A New Discourse Upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax.” The way he wrote it, with satirical allusions used to criticize British society, led him to be banished from the court (again). He was not a popular man, which didn’t help the mass adoption of his creation. The real obstacle was the fact that there was not an efficient waste disposal system at that time. In fact, for a long time.

Also, it smelled. It was not until 1775—according to the patent—that Alexander Cummings, a watchmaker, developed the S-shaped pipe under the toilet basin to fix the odor problem. After that, things moved quickly as Samuel Prosser invented and patented the “plunger closet” in 1777 and, a year later, it was Joseph Bramah of Yorkshire’s turn to submit a patent, this one concerning the first practical water closet in England. Bramah began making toilets at a workshop in Denmark Street, St Giles. His design was a success. In fact, production continued well into the 19th century.

The Popularization of the Flush Toilets

As people started to (finally) realize that poor sanitary conditions caused diseases, it quickly became necessary to develop sewer systems, and to have toilets. The first hotel to have indoor plumbing was the Tremont Hotel in Boston in 1929, but until the 1840s, the classy hotels and the homes of the rich were the only ones that were equipped with indoor plumbing.

Flushing toilet (From The Ironmonger, 1892 – source)

In fact, it was only in 1851 that the first public toilets were installed, at The Crystal Palace in London—customers were charged a penny for use (apparently, “To spend a penny” became a euphemism for going to the toilet after that). George Jennings was the one responsible for the installation. It was only supposed to be an exhibition, but Jennings convinced the organizers to keep the toilets open, and a lot of money was made. Jennings didn’t stop there. He greatly improved his designs, and in 1854, he installed the first underground convenience at the Royal Exchange. A decade later, he was exporting his toilets to France, Egypt, Spain, Australia, and more. His continued work greatly improve the way people lived at the turn of the century—even after his death in 1882.

But let’s not forget about Mr. Thomas Crapper. After all, he popularized the siphon system for emptying the tank, and his name became famously associated with the toilets.

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