Sorting through the history of plumbing reveals a great many things about early man’s ingenuity and problem-solving ability in an era when electricity and advanced mechanical solutions to problems were not yet prevalent. Even something as simple as moving water from one location to another requires forethought, planning and the occasionally brilliant breakthrough that modern society needed to flourish, yet the very same subject is often overlooked in favor of flashier subjects and more grandiose achievements.
While plumbing fixtures and water transportation methods may not spring to mind when thinking about major historic achievements, that doesn’t mean the field is without its interesting quirks and landmarks.
Plumbing is older than you might think
Thinking about the history of running water and waste disposal may conjure images of chamber pots and hand-drawn water from wells, but the storied history of plumbing stretches back thousands of years. The Indus River Valley in India contains some of the earliest known examples of copper piping used for moving water great distances, predating even Roman advances by hundreds to potentially thousands of years.
Pipes weren’t the only way to move water
Covered pipes buried underground are the modern solution to ancient problems in regards to delivering water to its intended recipient as cleanly and efficiently as possible. In ancient times before the concept of pressurized pipes became widespread, aqueducts of many types delivered water to remote villages and kept farms hydrated even when founded miles away from a reliable source of water. The Romans are often credited with perfecting the aqueduct yet many examples existed beforehand in Crete and Mesopotamia.
Boston hosted the United States’ strangest firefighting system
Faced with the issue of fighting fires in a dense urban environment, the city of Boston installed water lines made from hollow tree trunks as early as 1650. This system evolved to carved wooden pipes over time, leading into the 18th and 19th centuries where water was sold on the street from these systems. Some of our earliest plumbing definitions and acronyms come from this era of history, though a great many more call back to ancient plumbing methods as well.
Ancient Egyptians used modern plumbing techniques in the pyramids
Of all the possible places to build a bathroom, the Egyptians thought the pyramids to be one of the most important places to start. Ancient plumbing in the pyramids can be attributed to their beliefs involving the afterlife, namely that their honored dead would need to be provided with everyday necessities like valuables and access to hygiene after departing. Sitting toilets and self-draining tubs have both been found, though flushing toilets were not invented for some time to come.
Ancient faucets were often ornate
When we think of our steel and ceramic sink basins it may be difficult to believe public Roman baths housed fixtures made of gold, silver and other valuable materials. Originally fed by lead pipes, the Romans later upgraded to copper pipes much like those discovered in India many thousands of years ago. Additionally, Roman architecture often contained ornate water features, which are an architectural standby that continue to crop up even today.
Modern toilets are older than the United States
Though examples of flushable toilets have been discovered in ancient Crete, our modern ideas about how a toilet should look and perform didn’t come into being until the late 1500s thanks to Sir John Harrington. Harrington’s idea comprised on the toilet bowl, seat and water-containing cistern we think of today, yet did not catch on at the time due to a lack of public sewage systems to transport waste water away.
Bathing was once considered a fad
Our modern sensibilities about hygiene haven’t existed for quite as long as you might think. In the mid-19th century, Boston’s city council outlawed bathing during winter months without special permission from a doctor as it was seen more as a strange hobby than a daily necessity. These measures were put in place to combat disease in a time when sewage systems and water hygiene standards had yet to be fully codified, which led bathing in a tub to be lumped in with other potential causes of illness. Thankfully, these measures were reviewed by the 1870s thanks to New York’s early foray into modern sanitation laws.
Single-handle faucets are under 100 years old
Stranger yet, single-handle faucets may not have come into existence at all had their creator not scalded himself while using a dual-facet design. 1937 marked the conception of a faucet with a single handle yet the design wasn’t finalized until the 1940s, making this household standby one of the most recent inventions in modern plumbing. Innovations to the first design poured in and became national standbys by the mid-1950s.
Japan pioneered the sensor-based toilet
It’s quite easy to overlook something as novel as a toilet that flushes itself based off of sensors, but this style of toilet didn’t reach the masses until the mid-1980s in Japan, followed by their export to the rest of the world and their slow introduction into public restrooms at large. By comparison, electronic faucets were first developed as early as the 1950s, yet didn’t see commercial use until the same decade as electronic toilets yet were mostly found in airport restrooms for the first few years of their public use.
Modern plumbing saves thousands of lives daily
Homeowners and landlords originally resisted indoor plumbing, considering it less affordable and more of a frivolous luxury in comparison to outdoor facilities and non-flushing toilets. Though indoor plumbing slowly gained prominence through the 19th century and the medical benefits of clean water and proper sanitation spread through the United States during the 20th century, it can be said that the invention of something as simple as the flushing toilet has saved more lives from disease than nearly any other invention in human history.
So while it’s easy to take running water for granted or throw a fit when the hot water heater runs empty after half an hour of standing under perfectly warmed water, remember that some of the innovations you use every day may not have existed in the lifetime of your great grandparents. Bringing plumbing into the public eye has pushed humankind forward and will continue to do so for centuries to come, so don’t forget just how important the pipes in your house truly are.
The John – pixabay creative commons
The Pyramids – pixabay creative commons
Mid 19th century living conditions – Photo by Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash
Guest Author Bio
Vincent West is an engineering designer from Boston whose passion for green architecture and work-safety has led to blogging. You can find more of Vincent’s work on his social media accounts: Facebook & Twitter.