The modern flush toilet, which solved an important sanitary problem, has a bizarre history
For almost 200 years, people generally saw the flush toilet as an unnecessary extravagance.
BY REID CREAGER
The godson of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir John Harington was a royal pain to her. An English courier and poet, he produced the first English translation of Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” as a punishment from the queen after he had shown some of the naughty parts of the epic poem to her ladies-in-waiting.
Such is the account from the Ex-Classics Project in its introduction to Harington’s pamphlet/book: “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax.”
Ex-Classics called it “a book impossible to classify. It starts with a long prologue justifying its subject, with many examples from Biblical and classical sources relating to excretion and the disposal of sewage, before describing his invention – the first flush toilet.”
The description was not intended to impugn the character of this character, known for his “cheekiness and scurrility.” To the contrary, Harington was a learned man with a wealth of satire; some critics interpreted “A New Discourse” as an attack on the problems of the times that should be flushed away.
Pretty heady stuff for a man widely credited with a plumbing achievement.
Making amends with the queen?
The first flush toilet was much more than that, of course. Harington’s concept—now in use for more than 400 years—revolutionized convenience and sanitation in connection with a basic human need.
Before Harington’s 1596 invention, humans in ancient civilizations used makeshift contraptions such as pots filled with sand, followed by toilet seats built above streams of flowing water. (Ancient Romans quickly discarded their messes on the streets, post-waste.) Not surprisingly, sanitary diseases, including typhoid, were often rampant.
His invention described an oblong bowl that was 2 feet deep, waterproofed with a mixture of pitch, resin and wax. Water came from a cistern on the upper floor of Harington’s residence. One flush used a substantial 7.5 gallons of water.
Harington had such a device built for Queen Elizabeth’s palace (maybe this helped him get back in her good graces). One would think such an invention for the home would be instantly and widely accepted—not to mention making Harington flush with money.
But as you already know, this is not your typical invention story.
People generally saw the flush toilet as an unnecessary extravagance. It didn’t catch on for another couple hundred years, with an initial boost from improvements in manufacturing and waste disposal during the Industrial Revolution.
Harington’s breakthrough did have a major drawback, of the olfactory variety. Perhaps sniffing a chance to make money where Harington failed, Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming was granted the first patent for a flush toilet in 1775.
Cumming’s innovation was the S-shaped pipe below the bowl that used water to create a seal, preventing sewer gas from entering through the toilet. And almost 100 years later, everyone’s favorite childhood snicker, London plumbing businessman Thomas Crapper (see Inventor Archives on this page), manufactured one of the first widely successful lines of flush toilets. He invented the ballcock, an improved tank-filling mechanism present in today’s toilets.
Today, of course, we have wall-mounted toilets, high-efficiency toilets, smart toilets, Tom the Talking Toilet (relax; it’s a miniature toy). And let’s not forget the Modern Toilet Restaurant in Taiwan, where everything in the three-story, 2,800-square-foot building is based on items from a toilet room or a bathroom.
But even sitting-pretty, luxury loos are subject to relatively recent water conservation efforts by the U.S. government: The Energy Policy Act of 1992, which went into effect in 1994, required all toilets made and installed after that year to use a maximum of 1.6 gallons per flush.
So, Sir John Harington may have never sat on a real throne, but his place in history does make him a king of sorts.
He would probably be amused by a Facebook group that shows photos of weird toilets and toilet situations, “Toilets With Threatening Auras.” And we’re sure he would like the title.