The centerpiece of today’s modern bathroom, the flush toilet has equal roots in ancient sanitation practices, Elizabethan politics and Industrial Revolution know-how. 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 several ancient civilizations.
First Modern Flushable Toilet
The first 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.
Seal Preventing Sewer Gas
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. In 1775 English 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.
In the late-19th century, a London plumbing entrepreneur 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. It is here that many Americans saw a flushing toilet for the first time in their lives, most of which were made by Thomas Crapper & Co and had the brand labeled on them. The soldiers took to calling toilets “The Crapper” and brought that slang term for the toilet back with them to the United States.