Sir John Harington

When Was the First Flushable Toilet Invented?

Sir John Harington
Portrait of Sir John Harington (1561-1612). Hieronymus Custodis

It is unclear who first invented the flush toilet. Although archaeological
excavations in northwest India have revealed 4000-year-old drainage systems which might have been toilets, it is not clear whether this is
genuinely the case.


However, the honor of producing the first toilet goes either to the Scots
(in a Neolithic settlement dating back to 3000 BC) or to the Greeks who
constructed the Palace of Knossos (in 1700 BC) with large earthenware
pans connected to a flushing water supply.


The first semi-modern flushable toilet was described in 1596 by
Sir John Harington, an English courtier and the godson of
Queen Elizabeth I. Harington’s device called for a 2-foot-deep
oval bowl waterproofed with pitch, resin, and wax and fed by
water from an upstairs cistern. Flushing Harington’s pot required
7.5 gallons of water—a veritable torrent in the era before indoor
plumbing. Harington noted that when water was scarce, up to 20
people could use his commode between flushes. 


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. Although Harington installed a working model for
Queen Elizabeth at Richmond Palace, it took several
centuries—and the Industrial Revolution’s improvements in
manufacturing and waste disposal—for the flush toilet to catch
on.

detailed illustration of water closet
Illustration: SSPL/Getty Images

MODERN FLUSHING TOILETS

In the late 19th-century, a London plumbing impresario named Thomas Crapper manufactured one of the first widely successful lines of flush toilets. Crapper did not invent the toilet, but he did develop the ballcock, an improved tank-filling mechanism still used in toilets today. 

Crapper’s name would become synonymous with the devices he sold, thanks in part to American servicemen stationed overseas during World War I. The men, unfamiliar with the relatively new- fangled invention, referred to the toilets as “crappers”—due to the Crapper brand’s ubiquity in England and France—and brought the term back home with them after the war.

TOILETS TODAY

Bathroom technology really arrived in the 20th century with flushable valves, water tanks resting on the bowl itself, and toilet paper rolls (first marketed only in 1902). In 1992, The US Energy Policy Act was passed, requiring flush toilets to use only 1.6 gallons of water. As a result, companies all over the world moved to develop better, low-flush toilets to prevent clogging. Clogs still happen and are inevitable. If you’re experiencing low flush pressure or frequent clogs, call the Master Plumbers. Master Tech Service Corp, where help is next door.

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