Toilets: Then and Now, Part 07: Toilet Inventions and Designs

(toilets were finally developed into practical utilities)

Special Advances in Toilet Design

Without the toilet, high density cities would be impossible

  • The invention that has had the most impact on human civilization is the toilet (with related waste treatment technologies) because it has made possible high density human populations which could not be done by any other modern invention including mechanical and electronic.
  • Consider what life in a large city would be like if everyone in a multiple-story apartment building had to use the same outhouse; or even worse, if they emptied their chamberpots off the balcony as was commonplace less than a hundred fify years ago in the most advanced cities of the world.
  • Because of it's simiplicity and general use, most people assume the toilet has been around for a long time.
  • In fact, the toilet is a relatively modern device developed in the same era that brought us train travel and wire communication; that is, the industrial revolution during the middle and late nineteenth century.
  • As with much of the industrial revolution, England was the cradle of its development.
  • Ancient civilizations never had individual home toilets for the populations

  • Several of the more advanced ancient civilizations, Greek, Indian and Roman, had a system providing running water to citizens in the larger cities.
  • Roman aquducts were marvels of engineering bringing fresh water from large distances to cities across southern Europe.
  • Yet, none of the ancient civilizations developed a device or method to use the water sources to remove human waste from individual homes.
  • By the middle of the nineteenth century, the chamberpot and the outhouse were still the only choices for rich or poor in the large cities of Europe and America.
  • The more populations increased the greater the need for better human-waste disposal

  • By the early eighteen hundreds, with rapidly growing populations and increasing pollution problems, cities in Europe and America undertook to do what the Romans had done centuries earlier which was to bring clean water into the cities and flush wastes away from the city.
  • This was the age of invention and industrialization; so, as soon as a reliable source of water was available, individual inventors in Europe as well as America strived separately to develop devices to remove human wastes from habitats.
  • Because the patent offices of England and the United States have maintained several hundred years of records for patent applications, the inventors of sanitary equipment are fairly well documented.
  • Credit for the invention of the toilet is usually credited to Sir John Harington, but approximately two hundred years later in 1775, Alexander Cummings received an English patent for putting a water trap under a bowl.
  • This was a major advancement towards a true functioning toilet; yet, nothing changed in the general market.
  • In fact, until iron foundries improved cast iron pipe and potteries improved terra cotta pipe in the 1800's, if there had been a functioning toilet, it would have had to be placed in the outhouse anyway.
  • The first waste removal devices for houses in England and the United States during the nineteenth century were mechanical not hydraulic

  • "The earthcloset" was something of a portable outhouse found in many houses.
  • Dry granular clay was dispensed from a hopper into a box to desiccate waste and prevent odor. When the box was full the earth and waste could be removed for disposal elsewhere.
  • It was a kind of "kitty litter box" for people which was a small improvement over a hole in the backyard with a bench over it; known as an "out house".
  • The first workable attempts at a hydraulic personal waste removal device, logically enough, seem to just automate the chamberpot.
  • A hole was created in the bottom of the bowl or pot, water from a cistern, or tank, flowed out of holes in the bowl's rim into the waste line and out to a tank in the ground or a moving body of water.
  • Some inventors used pans or levers to seal the bowl to the waste line to prevent sewer gas from entering the dwelling.
  • As early as 1862, during the American Civil War, the designer of the Union ship, the Monitor installed a plunger type mechanical toilet for the crew.
  • The most efficient first generation toilet was the simplest

  • A bowl with a hole in the front or back and a p-trap beneath filled with water to seal the house from sewer gas.
  • Basically what Alexander Cummings had designed a century prior. In configuration, it is little different than a typical kitchen sink.
  • Yet, it is a major improvement over devices that used values or pans to seal the bowl from the malodorous putrefaction seeping from the septic pit.
  • These first generation toilets came to be known as "wash-out" water closets.
  • Several companies in England were selling them as early as the 1870's.
  • One company, Thomas Twyford of England, is given credit for the first all-ceramic toilet.
  • The "dolphin" wash-out was exhibited at the 1876 world's fair in Philadelphia, although it is not certain that Twyford was the manufacturer.
  • These new English wash-out toilets proved very popular where municipalities had installed water and waste lines.
  • Toilets were exported to the continent and America spawning interest by local manufacturers.
  • The wash-out while a major advancement over an out house or chamber pot, still left much to be desired.
  • They were not efficient. If all the waste did not go through the p-trap, putrification odors would result.
  • Manufacturers and inventors continued to search for improvements.
  • The first improvement was combining the pool of water in the bowl with the p-trap.
  • These toilets, known as "wash-downs", were on the market shortly following the wash-out.
  • Both wash-outs and wash-downs often failed to consistently remove heavier waste from the bowl.
  • Earlier water closets

  • There was a noble origin to the water closet in its earliest days. Sir John Harington, godson to Queen Elizabeth, set about making a "necessary" for his godmother and himself in 1596.
  • A rather accomplished inventor, Harington ended his career with this invention, because he was ridiculed by his peers for this absurd device. He never built another one, although he and his godmother both used theirs.
  • Thomas Twyford revolutionized the water closet business in 1885 when he built the first trapless toilet in a one-piece, all china design. A preeminent potter, Twyford competed against other notable businesses including Wedgwood and Moulton.
  • By the end of the century, sanitaryware manufacturers had discovered that by diverting some of the water from the cistern to the bottom of the bowl, a jet flush was created that pushed waste out and if they changed the shape of the p-trap exit it would act like a siphon pulling the waste out.
  • The modern flush toilet was born

  • English historians credit a pottery in Chelsea, the Beaufort Works, as the first to develop a toilet with a flush tube to the bottom of the bowl in 1886, although an American had received a patent in America ten years earlier for a similar concept.
  • Most of the elegant embossed and decorated toilets found in old mansions or in architectural antique dealerships are wash-out type toilets.
  • By the turn of the century when manufacturers had perfected the siphonic flush type toilet, styles in vogue had changed.
  • There was a reaction against the heavy decoration on all household objects that Victorians had favored.
  • Modern (early twentieth century) manufactured objects were sleek yet simple.
  • Changing tastes alone does not account for the complete lack of artistic expression that inflicted the sanitaryware industry after the nineteenth century.
  • As great a factor was the change in manufacturers.
  • The pioneers of the industry came from the English ceramic industry involved in tile production as well as table china.
  • Royal Doulton, a house still known for fine china was one of the first and largest makers of wash-out toilets.
  • Another very early and successful English manufacturer of water closet ceramic fixtures was Twyford who had been making teapots two hundred years earlier.
  • These companies were developing modern manufacturing methods; such as, dust pressing tile or porcelean enameling cast iron, yet they traditionally competed on style not manufacturing proficiency or efficiency.
  • They often had the words "art pottery" or "art tile" in the companies' name. The greatest achievement was to have a design that would win Royal Family approval.
  • The pioneering companies that first brought the toilet to market were more often companies of artists rather than engineers.
  • Producers of toilets proudly put their names boldly on the products they created

  • One English company, Thomas Crapper, has been remembered by name; at least as his name became indistinguishable from his plumbing product.
  • He operated two of the three Crapper plumbing shops in his lifetime, but he left the business three years before the final and most famous facility on Kings Road in London.
  • When Crapper retired from active business in 1904, he sold his shop to two partners who, with help from others, operated the company under the Crapper name until its closing in 1966.
  • The World War I U.S. doughboys passing through England brought together Crapper's name and the toilet. They saw the words T. Crapper-Chelsea printed on the tanks and coined the slang "crapper" as a well-known term for "toilet".
  • For an individual who had little or nothing to do with inventing the water closet, he has become a modern-age folk hero.
  • Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, people who should know better continue the tale of Thomas Crapper as the man who "invented the toilet".
  • There are some people wkho also claim that the slang "John" for toilet came from the John Douglas Company of Cincinnati putting his name on his toilet for the American market; however, actually there were several manufacturers with John in their logos or company names.
  • As the founding artist/owners died and their companies consolidated into larger companies, managers and engineers replaced the artists and attention was extended to mass production instead of artistic expression.
  • So it was that the difference between a "top of the line" toilet and a "home-improvement store" toilet was mostly the price on the invoice.
  • The sanitary potteries of England and America in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century manufactured toilets that varied a great deal in color decoration, shape and texture (embossing).

—Compiled from several sources of information including:
"History of the toilet"; Sunday News; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; August 6, 2006.
"Toilet talk, from the scholars, The history and politics of public restrooms" by Kate Tuttle;
The Boston Globe; Boston, Massachusetts; December 6, 2010.
"It's time we declared war on our dirty toilets"; New Straits Times
by Johan Jaaffar; January 3, 2009.
"Toilets" by Judith Sims; Environmental Encyclopedia; January 1, 2003.

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