Plumbing plays a vital role in the health and well-being of modern society. Here’s a quick history of plumbing to put your curious mind at ease.
The past is scary. It took upwards of a week to get anywhere and history is littered with no shortage of horrifying, incurable diseases. But what there was a shortage of? Toilets.
Things we take for granted every day like plumbing and air conditioning are recent developments.
Have you ever wondered just how the toilet came to be? Or which ancient civilization was the first to discover the miracles of air conditioning?
Get to know your pipes and u-bends a little bit better with this brief tour through the history of plumbing.
An Ancient History of Plumbing
Archeologists have traced the first instance of plumbing all the way back to 4000 B.C. Copper pipes were found in the ruins of a palace along the Indus River, indicating that the ancient Indians had been capable of funneling running water.
The clever Egyptians were also early adopters on pipe-plumbing, due to their advanced techniques for working with metals.
Even the great pyramids have toilets. Ancient Egyptians believed that whatever humans needed in life, they would also need in death. Early Egyptian toilets used a system of pipes and pulleys to send excrement out to the river.
On the Greecian island of Crete, they used rainwater to their advantage, building large cisterns that collected water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and other needs.
King Minos of Crete was the first person to own a fully functioning toilet. While rudimentary by today’s standards, the first toilet came equipped with a flushing mechanism and a liftable, wooden toilet seat.
The Roman Empire was the most advanced in terms of early plumbing. While there wasn’t an abundance of toilets, there were aqueducts to pump water into the city to public bathhouses. These pipes were fashioned out of lead, not copper.
The Roman aqueducts pumped in an astounding 317 million gallons of water a day, carrying it into the city from over 57 miles away. There was also a crude underground sewer system in place to funnel waste out of the open streets.
Eventually, several hundred years later, Germany would learn how to conduct enough heat to melt and manipulate iron. They could create hollow pipes, shifting away from copper, which had been tainting the water supply.
A Thrown for the Queen
It wasn’t until 1596 that Mino’s “thrown” was recreated. Writer and godson to Queen Elizabeth I Sir John Harrington built a flushing toilet–“a privie in perfection”, as he called it–for the Queen and another for himself.
This is where the term “the john” originates from.
Harrington’s book about the invention, A New Discourse on a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax (“ajax” was slang for toilet) led to some controversy in Elizabeth’s court, causing Harrison to be banished.
Ultimately, Harrington became a laughing stock around England, forcing him to abandon the idea of a flushing toilet. The invention would be discarded for another 200 years when Alexander Cumming would pick up the patent in 1775.
By the 17th century, most European castles had indoor bathrooms similar to Harrington’s “privie.” Without sewers for the plumbing to lead to, the toilets emptied out into the moats surrounding the castles, leaving a bit of an odor.
Plumbing Comes to Boston
The concept of plumbing was brought over the United States before the country was even formed. In 1652, the City of Boston installed a rudimentary system of water lines for use by the fire brigade.
Instead of using copper or lead, these “pipes” were crafted from hollowed out trees. The shape and depth of the trees determined just how deep the water lines were able to go.
In 1829, the Tremont House hotel opened in Boston, becoming the first building to use indoor plumbing. The water was delivered via steam-powered pumps to a holding tank on the hotel’s roof.
The tank allowed Tremont House to provide its guests with flushing toilets and baths (cold water only, though).
The Great Indoors
Like most great inventions, the history of air conditioning begins in Rome. The Romans used the aqueducts to pump cold water inside the walls of their homes.
In the third century Roman emperor Elagabalus imported snow to his palace in an effort to keep cool. It was about as effective as it sounds.
As Rome fell, efforts to control the temperature indoors died off. Those who could afford to work without overheating cooled down with handheld fans.
As the 20th century dawned, more and more people were becoming accustomed to modern luxuries like easily accessible running water and electricity. Next to come was air conditioning.
In 1902 Willis Carter, a 25-year-old engineer, invented the modern AC system that delivered cold air through coils that were cooled by running water. Initially, Carter made the machine to de-humidify the plant where he worked.
It wasn’t originally intended for public use but was adopted by the Rivoli Theatre years later. Movie theatres became early users of air conditioning, and the ticket sales reflected their wise decision.
This Carter’s invention was a precursor to what we now call the HVAC system that appears in almost every home and office.
The Modern Era
In the late 1800s, water heaters became commonplace, allowing homeowners to finally enjoy a hot bath.
By the 1920s, tank-type toilets were popping up more and more inside people’s homes. The tanks only used 5 gallons of water per flush, which considerably lessened water consumption.
Since then, the history of plumbing has been a series of small developments and improvements that have led to the modern toilets and AC units we all own today.
Due to a metal shortage, the construction of pipes transferred from lead and iron to plastic tubing, which carries on to this day.
Put Some Respect on Your Pipes
The past is filled with innovators who toiled over the modern conveniences that we all now take for granted. After reading the journey of the toilet, we hope you’ll never look at the old tank and bowl the same way again.
For any and all questions about your plumbing and HVAC, visit our blog. Learn all the essentials about your plumbing and let your pipes be a mystery no longer.