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Who Invented the Toilet? Fascinating Toilet History

It goes without saying today that a toilet is an essential, yet given, tool in our daily lives. At a certain point in history, however, toilets did not exist. Let’s dive into the fascinating history behind the invention of the toilet, and how it has progressed and evolved over time. 


The word toilet derives from the French word toile, meaning a “cloth” (toilette is a “small cloth”), that was draped over a lady or gentleman’s shoulders for hairdressing. Its use was extended to the whole process of hair and body care that centered around a dressing table with mirror, brushes, powder and make-up, during which close friends or tradesmen were often received.

Primitive latrines that utilized a constant stream of water to carry away waste date back at least 5,000 years, and early toilet systems were used by the several ancient civilizations, including the Romans and the Mohenjo-Dara and Harappa of the Indus Valley. Almost every house unit at Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Lothal was equipped with a private bath-toilet area with drains to take the dirty water out into a larger drain that emptied into the sewage and drainage system . In ancient Egypt there were cesspool lavatories located indoors in wealthy houses and temples, and outdoors for other dwellings. Excavations have revealed that underneath a wooden or stone slab seat was a hole leading to a cesspool, which was either filled with sand or emptied every few days onto nearby fields using the human waste as fertilizer. At Abusir, a brass drainpipe running from the upper temple was found along the connecting masonry causeway to the outer temple on the river. At the temple of King Suhura at Abusir stone basins in niches on the walls were used as lavatories, and pipes of beaten copper were used to empty the waste. In addition to these lavatories, a portable lavatory consisting of a wooden stool with a large slot in the middle for use with a pottery vessel beneath was discovered in the tomb of Kha. A recent study has demonstrated human intestinal parasites among the Essene sect at Qumran, near the Dead Sea . About 2000 years ago, the Essenes seem to have used a hatchet to bury their feces just below the surface soil. However, a stone lavatory seat with keyhole-shaped defecation opening was recovered from a house in Jerusalem dating to c. 500–700 BC, confirming the presence of such technology by that date.


The invention of some of the first simple toilets is credited to Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC. These non-flushing affairs were pits about 4.5 metres deep, lined with a stack of hollow ceramic cylinders about 1 metre in diameter. Users would have sat or squatted over the toilet, and the excrement would have stayed inside the cylinders with the liquids seeping outwards through perforations in the rings. Mesopotamians themselves also seemed to show little enthusiasm for this revolutionary technology. Although the toilets would have been convenient to use, and cheap and easy to install, they were uncommon. 


Roman Viaducts 

2,000 years ago, the Romans grasped the essentials of sanitation. They designed and built the famous viaducts and incredibly innovative draining systems that dramatically improved the state of sanitation in Rome. Supporting a population of 1 million, the Romans had to be sure their systems would be able to serve everyone effectively. Therefore, the first communal toilet was invented. These toilets were situated in long lines, some of which you can still view today, and human waste would drop into the drain below to be washed away by water. After using the toilet, the Romans would wash themselves with a sponge on a stick (hence the saying; don’t grab the wrong end of the stick). Clean water was very precious to the Romans so, instead of washing away their waste with clean water, they used their waste water from their baths to wash away their waste as clean water was so precious.By 315 AD, Rome had 144 public toilets. The Romans treated going to the toilet as a social event. They met friends, exchanged views, caught up on the news and wiped themselves with a piece of sponge fixed to a short wooden handle.Roman public latrines looked much like their Greek predecessors: rooms lined with stone or wooden bench seats positioned over a sewer. The toilet holes are round on top of the bench, and a narrower slit extends forward and down over the edge in a keyhole shape. These slits probably allowed users to insert a sponge-tipped stick for cleaning. Small gutters often run parallel to the seats along the ground; researchers suspect that people probably washed the sponges in water running through those gutters. There are no signs of barriers between the toilet seats, but people probably had a measure of privacy thanks to their long garments and the limited windows, says Koloski-Ostrow.

The Romans had a system of sewers, much like we have today. They built simple outhouses or latrines directly over the running waters of the sewers that poured into the Tiber River. The Romans quickly realised that flowing water greatly improved the disposal of human waste. As early civilisations matured, formal waste areas using flowing water became more available and helped dramatically in improving Man’s waste disposal problems in many ways, not the least of which helped reduce diseases.Private toilets were different. In residences, commodes were often in or near kitchens, which was practical because they were also used to dispose of food scraps. Although people flushed the toilets with buckets of water, the loos were rarely connected to sewers. When the pits filled up, they were probably emptied, either into gardens or fields outside the town. 


The Garderobe

The flush toilet was invented in 1596 but didn’t become widespread until 1851. Before that, the “toilet” was a motley collection of communal outhouses, chamber pots and holes in the ground. During the 11th-century castle-building boom, chamber pots were supplemented with toilets that were, for the first time, actually integrated into the architecture. These early bathrooms, known as “garderobes” were little more than continuous niches that ran vertically down to the ground, but they soon evolved into small rooms that protruded from castle walls as distinct bottomless bays (such a toilet was the setting for a pivotal scene in the season finale of “Game of Thrones”). “Garderrobe” is both a euphemism for a closet as well as a quite literal appellation, as historian Dan Snow notes: “The name garderobe – which translates as guarding one’s robes – is thought to come from hanging your clothes in the toilet shaft, as the ammonia from the urine would kill the fleas.”

Though it might be named for a closet, the garderrobe actually had a strong resemblance to an aspect of a castle’s defenses. And it works in the same basic way: gravity. And while the garderobe was actually a weak spot in a castle’s defenses, woe be the unassuming invader scaling a castle wall beneath one. Several designs emerged to solve the problem of vertical waste disposal – some spiral up towers, for example, while some were entire towers; some dropped waste into cesspools, moats, and some just dropped it onto the ground below. Not all medieval compounds were okay with merely dumping excrement onto the ground like so much hot oil. Christchurch monastery (1167) has an elaborate sewage system that separates running water, rain drainage, and waste. 


The Crapper

As the population of Britain increased during the 19th century, the number of toilets did not match this expansion. In overcrowded cities, such as London and Manchester, up to 100 people might share a single toilet. Sewage, therefore, spilled into the streets and the rivers. This found its way back into the drinking water supply (which was brown when it came out of the pipes) and was further polluted by chemicals, horse manure and dead animals; as a result, tens of thousands died of water-borne disease, especially during the cholera outbreaks of the 1830s and 1850s.

In 1848, the government decreed that every new house should have a water-closet (WC) or ash-pit privy. “Night soil men” were engaged to empty the ash pits. However, after a particularly hot summer in 1858, when rotting sewage resulted in “the great stink (pictured right in a cartoon of the day)“, the government commissioned the building of a system of sewers in London; construction was completed in 1865. At last, deaths from cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases dropped spectacularly. In 1861, Thomas Crapper was hired by Prince Edward (later King Edward VII) to construct lavatories in several royal palaces. He patented a number of toilet-related inventions but did not actually invent the modern toilet, although he was the first to display his wares in a showroom (right). He and his contemporaries, George Jennings, Thomas Twyford, Edward Johns & Henry Doulton, began producing toilets much as we know them today.


The Modern Toilet 

Sir John Harrington (c.1560-1612) is credited with inventing the first modern indoor flushing mechanism. He perfected his flushing device but only made two of his design as it was expensive to produce. So, he made one flushing toilet for his own home and made one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Harington described his device in a satirical pamphlet entitled “A New Discourse on a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax”—a pun on the term “a jakes,” which was a popular slang term for toilets. In 1775 Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming was granted the first patent for a flush toilet. His greatest innovation was the S-shaped pipe below the bowl that used water to create a seal preventing sewer gas from entering through the toilet.  Som say, however, that George Jennings, an English sanitary engineer and plumber, was the first inventor of the public flush toilets. In 1851 the first public flushing toilet block opened in London and, due to its popularity, spread around the country. The cost of using these public toilets was 1 penny, hence the famous phrase ‘to spend a penny’. It remained this price for over 100 years.

Although the modern flushing toilet has revolutionised and dramatically improved one of our simple yet critical needs, many in our modern world still do not have access to modern toilets. According to the Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000, by the World Health Organisation: 40% of the global population do not have access to “good excreta disposal facilities.” Unfortunately, disease associated with human waste contamination is still extremely rampant in many areas of the world. However, many governments and specialising professionals are fighting to ensure that, one day, everyone will have access to the modern toilet.


How do Modern Toilets Work? 

A toilet has two main parts—the tank and the bowl. The bowl holds water and connects to the drain for disposing of waste water and waste. The tank, which sits up behind the bowl, contains reserve water for refilling the bowl plus the devices for flushing clean water into the bowl and refilling the tank.One of these devices—called a ballcock—is connected to the water supply and controls delivery of water to the tank. When the tank’s water rapidly drops down into the bowl (upon a flush), the pressure causes the bowl’s waste water to go down the drain. The drop in water level is sensed by a float, ball, or pressure gauge, and this triggers the ballcock to refill the tank.When a conventional toilet is flushed, water from the tank rushes into the bowl through an orifice called the flush valve. Before you trip the lever, this valve is plugged with a rubber stopper, called a tank ball, flush valve seat ball, or the newer, more effective flapper or flapper ball.

The valve and the flapper together are called—not surprisingly—the flapper valve. Tripping the lever simply lifts the rubber flapper off the valve and…whoosh, the water flows into the toilet bowl! A flush valve is 2 1/2 inches in diameter as is the ball-shaped part of the flapper. The flapper hinges onto the vertical overflow pipe that’s next to the valve, and a small chain connects the flapper to the trip lever. The advantage of a flapper over the earlier stoppers is that it doesn’t have as many parts to foul or get hung up so it’s less likely to let the tank “run” or leak into the bowl.


Macerating Toilets 

Flush toilets come in many shapes and sizes, but one thing they all have in common is a relatively large and ugly outlet for the waste, sometimes known as a soil pipe. These pipes are so large and wide that they limit the places where normal toilets can be fitted. If you need a bathroom in the middle of a building where it’s impossible to route a large soil pipe, what can you do? Most toilets also work through the gravity-siphon effect, but what if you need to put one in a basement and the drain you want flush into is up above it?

One solution to problems like this is to fit a macerating toilet (sometimes called an upflush toilet), which is a bit like a cross between a conventional toilet and a waste disposal unit. The waste passes into a kind of blender that mashes it up into a liquid, before pumping it up through a thin pipe connected, eventually, to the large, main soil pipe. The big advantage of toilets like this is that you can fit them almost anywhere in a building where there’s both water (for the flush) and electricity (to power the macerator and pump). Unfortunately, they’re often bigger and bulkier than conventional flush toilets, noisier and less discreet, and (since they have more moving parts) less reliable. Although they’re more expensive than normal toilets, they can still work out cheaper than replumbing your house for a conventional toilet. According to Saniflo, one of the leading manufacturers, a typical macerating toilet can pump waste an impressive distance: with an upward rise of 5m (16ft), a horizontal distance of 20m (66ft); or with an upward rise of 1m (3.3ft), a horizontal distance of 100m (328ft). That’s more than enough for most homes and many commercial buildings.


What is a Bidet? 

A bidet attachment is a simple little device that connects to your existing toilet. Most bidet attachments don’t use electricity, so the mechanism that allows for their spray is quite simple: it’s powered by the water pressure in your home’s pipes! A bidet attachment redirects water from the pipes to a nozzle that you control. The water source is the same one that your shower and sink use. (Contrary to some worries, a bidet doesn’t use “toilet water!”) A basic bidet attachment gets you nice and clean using this simple setup, usually with an option for you to control the pressure with the same dial that turns it on and off. That dial controls the valve through which water flows, widening the opening in the valve to provide greater water pressure.

If you’d like a more advanced attachment, temperature-controlled bidet attachments also allow you to choose if you’d like warm or cool water. The basic mechanism for the water spray is the same. But in this case, warm water comes from your sink’s hot water line. The same type of t-valve that connects to your toilet’s water supply line hooks up to your sink, allowing for warm water on demand. As with a basic bidet attachment, the whole system is non-electric. A bidet toilet seat is a more high-tech bidet option that can come with a variety of features to make your bathroom experience comfortable, convenient, and clean. Fresh water still comes from the same source, but a big difference is that this type of bidet requires electricity. cElectricity in a luxury bidet toilet seat powers features like the air dryer, heated seat, water temperature selection, and use of the remote control. Different mechanisms located throughout this sophisticated throne activate as necessary to bring you the comfort and cleaning you want on demand. 

For instance, a process called resistive heating or Joule heating is required for the bidet’s dryer feature and heated seats. The electric current passes through coils made of conductive material, much like the ones you see in a toaster or hairdryer. These coils serve as the resistor, heating up and releasing that heat. In the case of the dryer feature, a fan is activated to get that heat aimed at you. A motor turns a fan and forces air to flow past the coils as they heat up, sending warm air out of the air dryer flap in seconds. As for the heated seats, the electric current runs through a wire that winds through the inside of the seat. Foil on top of the wire spreads the heat to the seat, where it can warm your buns as needed.  A slightly different system is used to heat up water on demand. Omigo and Omigo SL offer the option of four different water temperatures, so an instant heater is needed to precisely and quickly calibrate the water to the temperature you choose. As water flows from your bathroom’s pipes, a flow sensor triggers ceramic plates to warm up. These plates quickly reach the specified temperature, heating the water as they go. 

Perhaps the most complex system at work is the one that provides optimum water pressure from this bidet toilet seat. That’s because an air pump assists in the process to allow for more pressure without requiring more water. The air pump sends air to the multiway valve, the place where air and water meet before getting sent out through the bidet’s nozzles. Depending on the desired water pressure, a small door on the multiway valve opens a little or a lot to create the exact spray you prefer. All of these settings are selected by a remote control that operates via infrared technology. This means that pulses of invisible light send signals to a device inside the bidet to activate different controls. Each button on the remote sends a different combination of pulses of infrared light, and a microprocessor decodes the combination. The remote must be near the bidet to send the light directly to it, and that’s a good thing: it means that the remote can’t be used through walls or around the corner, so no one can prank you by switching on your bidet from another room when you’re not expecting it! 


Other Types of Toilets

1.Pit Latrine 

A pit latrine, also known as pit toilet, is a type of toilet that collects human feces in a hole in the ground.  Urine and feces enter the pit through a drop hole in the floor, which might be connected to a toilet seat or squatting pan for user comfort.  Pit latrines can be built to function without water (dry toilet) or they can have a water seal (pour-flush pit latrine). When properly built and maintained, pit latrines can decrease the spread of disease by reducing the amount of human feces in the environment from open defecation.  This decreases the transfer of pathogens between feces and food by flies.  These pathogens are major causes of infectious diarrhea and intestinal worm infections. Infectious diarrhea resulted in about 700,000 deaths in children under five years old in 2011 and 250 million lost school days. Pit latrines are a low-cost method of separating feces from people


2. Urine-diverting toilet

A urine-diverting dry toilet (UDDT) is a type of dry toilet with urine diversion that can be used to provide safe, affordable sanitation in a variety of contexts worldwide. The separate collection of feces and urine without any flush water has many advantages, such as odor-free operation and pathogen reduction by drying. While dried feces and urine harvested from UDDTs can be and routinely are used in agriculture (respectively, as a soil amendment and nutrient-rich fertilizer—this practice being known as reuse of excreta in agriculture), many UDDTs installations do not apply any sort of recovery scheme. The UDDT is an example of a technology that can be used to achieve a sustainable sanitation system. This dry excreta management system (or “dry sanitation” system) is an alternative to pit latrines and flush toilets, especially where water is scarce, a connection to a sewer system and centralized wastewater treatment plant is not feasible or desired, fertilizer and soil conditioner are needed for agriculture, or groundwater pollution should be minimized.

3. Portable toilet

A portable or mobile toilet (colloquial terms: thunderbox, portaloo, porta john or porta-potty) is any type of toilet that can be moved around, some by one person, some by mechanical equipment such as a truck and crane. Most types do not require any pre-existing services or infrastructure, such as sewerage, but are completely self-contained. The portable toilet is used in a variety of situations, for example in urban slums of developing countries, at festivals, for camping, on boats, on construction sites, film locations, and large outdoor gatherings where there are no other facilities. Most portable toilets are unisex single units with privacy ensured by a simple lock on the door. Some portable toilets are small molded plastic or fiberglass portable rooms with a lockable door and a receptacle to catch the human excreta in a container.

4. Chemical Toilet

A chemical toilet collects human excreta in a holding tank and uses chemicals to minimize odors. They do not require a connection to a water supply and are used in a variety of situations. These toilets are usually, but not always, self-contained and movable. A chemical toilet is structured around a relatively small tank, which needs to be emptied frequently. It is not connected to a hole in the ground (like a pit latrine), nor to a septic tank, nor is it plumbed into a municipal system leading to a sewage treatment plant. When the tank is emptied, the contents are usually pumped into a sanitary sewer or directly to a treatment plant.

The portable toilets used on construction sites and at large gatherings such as music festivals are well-known types of chemical toilet. As they are usually used for short periods and because of their high prices, they are mostly rented rather than bought, often including servicing and cleaning. A simpler type of chemical toilet may be used in travel trailers (caravans) and on small boats.

5. Squat Toilet 

If you’ve travelled in France, or perhaps China you’ve probably come across a squatting toilet. The first time I did as a child I was fearful and utterly perplexed. A squat toilet (or squatting toilet) is a toilet used by squatting, rather than sitting. This means that the posture used is to place one foot on each side of the toilet drain or hole and to squat over it. If you weren’t raised doing this, it does come as a shock. There are several types of squat toilets, but they all consist essentially of a toilet pan or bowl at floor level. Such a toilet pan is also called a “squatting pan”. A squat toilet may use a water seal and therefore be a flush toilet, or it can be without a water seal and therefore be a dry toilet. The term “squat” refers only to the expected posture and not any other aspects of toilet technology, such as whether it is water flushed or not. Squat toilets are used all over the world, but are particularly common in some Asian and African nations, as well as in some Muslim countries. In many of those countries, anal cleansing with water is also the cultural norm and easier to perform than with toilets used in a sitting position. They are also occasionally found in some European and South American countries. Squat toilets are regarded as traditional by many, and are being phased out in favour of sitting toilets or even high-tech sitting toilets.

Modern toilets are an essential part of our lives, yet there has been a long history of inventions, disease, and discoveries bringing us to where we are today. The reality is, much of the world still doesn’t have access to proper sanitation and waste disposal methods. It remains an important issue, and something that we shouldn’t take for granted. 

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