The Evolution of the Toilet

The humble toilet is often a utility we take for granted. On average, we humans use the toilet anywhere between 4 and 10 times a day. That’s a lot of waste we generate, and it has to go somewhere! But what if we told you that it wasn’t until the 19th century that proper plumbing systems were developed in the UK? There’s a lot to be learned about the fascinating history of the toilet, with many countries in the world being responsible for its development. We’ll explore the evolution of the toilet from its smelly beginnings to high-tech robotic loos. So, where did it all start?

Toilet Origins

The oldest toilet on record was developed over 5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. Back then, the type of toilet you had reflected your social status. The richest in society had limestone toilets constructed over a sand pit, whereas the poor simply used a wooden stool. There were no sewers or plumbing installed. It was simply doing your business in a hole in the ground. You can imagine the smell! There was also no toilet paper. Instead, people used a Xylospongium - a sponge on the end of a stick!

A Shared Experience

In the Roman Empire, it was common for going to the toilet to be a shared experience. Public bathrooms were open plan with toilets built in rows. This is certainly a far cry from the privacy we are used to today! If you’re wondering how one earth they could possibly do their business in such close quarters with complete strangers, you’re not alone. Well, put simply, they didn't have the same rules around modesty. The social norms we have around going to the toilet today are relatively recent, dating back to the Victorian era. Ancient Romans saw going to the toilet as an essential human function and were not ashamed of it.

But, Where Did the Waste Go?

We were all thinking the same thing. In the ancient world, where did the waste people left in the toilet end up? Did they have sewerage systems like we have today? The oldest known evidence of latrines that are linked to a sewerage system is in Pakistan, which has been dated back to 3000 BC. But it wasn’t until the Roman Empire that a city had a large-scale method of sanitation and discarding sewage waste, similar to today's methods. Even then, it wasn’t until 100 BC that people’s home latrines were connected to the sewage system. That’s a lot of waste that would accumulate and leave a bad smell in your home!

The Dark Age of the Loo

Unfortunately, the fall of the Roman Empire brought with it the fall of sanitation. This is when it became popular to throw toilet waste out onto the street, making cities and villages a breeding ground for bacteria and some pretty nasty diseases. This kind of poor sanitisation led to a number of outbreaks, including the plague and bouts of cholera, which killed almost 25% of the entire population of Europe! As cities kept growing throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, waste management became too much to handle.

Keeping the Waterways Clean 

While Europe was becoming increasingly less sanitary, cities in the Iberian Peninsula began to develop strict sanitation rules. Due to the arid climate, rainwater was scarce, and it was important that it was kept clean and well-distributed. They developed a system like we use today that separated three types of water: rainwater, grey water, and waste water. This would help to drastically improve sanitation and the overall health of the population.

The First Flush

If you thought that Thomas Crapper was the inventor of the first flushing toilet in the 1800s, you aren’t alone. However, although he is often credited with this invention, there is evidence that the first flush toilet was actually invented in the 16th century by a man called Sir John Harrington. He created a toilet that operated with a  raised cistern and downpipe to gather enough downward force in the water to flush the waste away. There were only two of these toilets built by Sir Harrington, including one for Queen Elizabeth I, no less! But, sadly, the invention went widely unnoticed. In 1775, watchmaker Alexander Cummings took this invention further, developing the design for the S-bend for odour control, which Crapper later evolved into the U-bend we still use today.

Victorian Plumbing

The sheer increase in population in the nineteenth century led to a huge shortage in the availability of toilet facilities. Cholera outbreaks were common and killed tens of thousands of people in English cities. It wasn’t until 1848 that it was deemed law that every newly built house should have a WC or ash-pit privy installed. Tens years later, in 1858, the lack of proper sewerage to accommodate the growing population of toilet users led to the event known as the Great Stink. This led to a proper sewerage system being implemented throughout the city of London, separating waste water from drinking water and preventing further waterborne diseases from spreading.

Toilets & Washrooms of the Future

Considering our toilet design is almost 200 years old, it would seem it is about time for an upgrade. But should we fix something that isn’t broken? Well, according to American businessman Bill Gates, we should. As an avid philanthropist, he is keen to raise awareness of the fact that there are still many areas of the world that don’t have access to effective sanitation systems. There has also been a recent development of ‘Flowsky’, a smart toilet that analyses human waste for abnormalities. This kind of toilet could be revolutionary in monitoring people’s diet through their stool and even detecting early symptoms of bladder and bowel cancers. Not only will toilets of the future be more closely linked to technology, but they will be more eco-friendly by using minimum water for their flush systems.

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