Everyday IP — Flushing out the facts: When was indoor plumbing invented?

So far, our daily IP blog series has covered some of the most common but important items used by people around the world – socks and toothbrushes – and linked them to major developments in intellectual property history. Now let’s turn to another thing that we probably take for granted on a daily basis, but without which we would in no way exist as we do today: indoor plumbing.

Answering the question: “When was the interior installation invented?” is a bit complicated. It is not about a single inventor, but rather several innovations that have emerged over many centuries. This story also shows how important it is to secure patent rights: we are more familiar with some personalities in plumbing history for their patents than for their original inventions.

The ancient origins of plumbing

Plumbing as we know it today (interconnected systems of internal pipes and drains attached to flush toilets and sinks) are not particularly old in the grand scheme of human history. But plumbing work generally dates back more than five millennia. Between 3200 and 1500 BC Systems of water pipes, sewers and latrines originated in ancient Sumer as well as in Egypt, Crete and the Neolithic settlement Skara Brae (near today’s Stromness in Orkney, Scotland). Only two of these concerned “indoor installations” in some way: the drainage houses built into the walls of Skara Brae and the water closets seen in Crete under the rule of King Minos. Ancient Rome is known for its intricate system of aqueducts with bronze and lead pipes that prevented the build-up of litter from public latrines and bathhouses.

For much of the next 2,000 years, the vast majority of latrines, like those of Rome, were in the open air, although there were undoubtedly systems in place to dispose of waste and navigate the polluted water from public places. For most of the world, the only way to use the bathroom indoors was to use a chamber pot and manually dispose of the accumulated trash, often by throwing it out a window on the street! (A lack of sanitation can almost certainly be linked to the major disease outbreaks of these times, such as the bubonic plague reign of terror in the Middle Ages.)

Flush toilet development (and first patents)

The first advancement towards the type of indoor toilets and plumbing systems as we know them today was in 1596. The horrors of the Middle Ages had given way to an explosion of artistic, scientific, and philosophical advances within the Renaissance, and this naturally followed start thinking about the need for sanitation.

Sir John Harrington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I, was best known as a poet and essayist when he designed a toilet that flushed and connected to a seat and water cistern: a lever operated valve let water from the tank into the tank flow bowl, and the now polluted water would drain from the toilet and down a pipe to a cesspool. But because there wasn’t a plumbing system to put everything down a sewer (and the kind of sewage treatment we have today), Harrington’s toilet was essentially a fancier chamber pot.

Alexander Cummings, a Scottish inventor, improved Harrington’s design in 1775 by adding the “S-trap”: this curved pipe, combined with a flush valve, ensured that always some uncontaminated water would flow back into the bowl. Sewage would flow into a cesspool. Cummings was also the first inventor to get a patent on a toilet. Harrington probably could have, but never did.

Indoor installations are becoming the norm

Flush toilets were not affordable for the average person at the beginning of the industrial revolution. In addition, indoor installations were rudimentary and extremely rare. Architect Isaiah Rogers installed flushable water closets and a sewerage system in Boston’s opulent Tremont House Hotel in 1829, and the White House had running water, but these were designed for wealthy travelers and the US President, respectively. They meant little to the workers and peasants on whom the economies of America, Britain and Europe depended.

Sewer systems slowly but surely became widespread in major urban centers in the mid to late 19th century: Government and health authorities recognized the dangers of diseases spread due to poor sanitation. There is no particular inventor of the modern sewer as it was the product of many urban civil engineers. Many notable improvements to the flush toilet were also made in the second half of this century. Inventors like Thomas Twyford have either developed and patented new toilets or components that allow them to work more efficiently.

This was also the era of Thomas Crapper: the English plumbing engineer did not invent the flush toilet, but patented various other plumbing and drainage devices, including the floating ball valve (yes, that’s the correct name) that allows toilet tanks to fill while flushing without Overflow and then drain. Crapper was also responsible for promoting bathroom systems as a marketable product despite the Victorian sensibility. His business lives on as one of the UK’s largest bathroom decorators.

While the term “crap” existed long before Crapper sold his toilets and bathroom fixtures, American soldiers in World War I, when they saw the pioneer’s name on chain-lift toilets in England and France, brought “Crapper” home a euphemism for a toilet.

Eventually, in the 20th century, the right combination of political efforts and ingenuity became the norm for widespread indoor plumbing and flush toilets. Although production requirements during the war limited the use of steel and copper for piping, the inventors used plastics and cast iron instead, and today PVC pipes are widely used around the world.

While it’s not always pleasant to think of bathrooms, toilets, and sewer systems, without them our lives would be very different – and not for the better. Sometimes inventions are like that. Regardless of your latest creation, Dennemeyer’s experts will be happy to help you register it as an IP in all relevant countries and ensure that your rights are protected.

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