While we’re not sure what Google search or school assignment brought you here, if, like us, you’ve wondered how toilets first came about and how they have evolved, you’re in the right place. Welcome. Let’s dive right in.
The history of the toilet is one of the oldest and longest histories known to man. For centuries, humans used their evolutionary intelligence and built a variety of toilet rooms and sewage systems dating back thousands of years BC bringing us to today’s latest technologies in portable toilets and VIP trailers.
Let’s go back to the beginning
While hearing the call of nature in the great outdoors was the necessary norm way back when, indoor toilets with a waste disposal system only came about somewhere around 3000 BC. Some argue the Scots were among the first to bring ablutions indoors (and who can blame them, they were probably freezing). It’s said the Scots used rivers as the drainage system to wash away the waste.
Over the next couple of thousands of years, evidence of toilets with waste disposal systems appeared within different civilisations including Ancient Egypt (3100BC), Indus Valley (c.2,600-1,900 BC) and the Minoan (2,000 to 1,600 BC). It is worth noting, however, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t use water sources for this purpose, they used what they had: plenty of sand.
The Greeks (880 BC) developed a flushing water supply, and the Romans in 315 AD revolutionised toilets by creating the first public toilet – previously a privileged luxury.
Fast forward a few thousand years, and the hard work done by our predecessors was completely wiped out as the world moved into the Middle Ages.
And let’s go back to the beginning again
The 16th century catapulted the toilet revolution back to almost the beginning of time. Plumbing and flushing technologies no longer existed. The people resorted back to using chamber pots and garderobes (like long-drops but elevated from the building and the waste dropped outside).
That was until, John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I came along in 1596, who invented the first water closet with a raised cistern and a small downpipe through which water ran to flush the waste. Success! The modern flushing toilet was here to stay.
Once Harrington’s invention had caught on, the toilet revolution advanced quickly and impressively. Here’s a quick overview:
- 1775 Alexander Cumming, a watchmaker, developed the S-shaped pipe under the toilet basin to keep out odours
- 1852 First modern public lavatory with flushing toilets opened
- 1861 Thomas Crapper was hired by Prince Edward to construct lavatories in the royal palaces. He patented a number of toilet-related inventions. Contrary to popular belief, Crapper was not the original inventor of the flushing toilet (even if his name fits the bill)
- 1883 The vacant/engaged bolt for public toilets was invented and patented (and we are forever grateful)
- 1892 John Nevil Maskelyne invented the coin-operated lock for toilets, you had to insert one penny to use it (and we are less grateful)
- 1902 Flushable valves were developed where the water tanks rested on the bowl itself
- 1940 The first portable toilet was created in a ship building yard as a wood cabana with a small holding tank. Problem was, being wood it was unsanitary, and the odours were absorbed.
- 1970 The first portable toilet was made of fibreglass which was lighter, but still unsanitary.
- By the mid-70s polyethylene portable toilets were introduced to worksites – more lightweight, durable, easier to clean and non-absorbing. This was the beginning of the portable toilet as we know it today.
- 1992 The US Energy Policy Act was passed, requiring flush toilets to use only 1.6 gallons of water.
The evolution of toilets is a fascinating demonstration of humankind’s ingenuity and dedication to progress. Some toilets now even come with heated seats and control pads to TV remotes. Portable toilets now also come in all shapes and forms for all types of occasions. Considering how far this technology has come, it’s certainly a great time to be alive if you enjoy comfort, convenience, and cleanliness.