A Short Course in Plumbing History
Cable TV's History Channel airs a regular series called "Modern Marvels," which examines the development of various technologies. Sometime late this summer, date unknown as of this writing, "Modern Marvels" will devote a program to the history of plumbing, on which I will appear as one of the interview subjects. They sought my input because I presided over a "History of Plumbing" series published annually from 1986 to 1996 by our company's other magazine for contractors, Plumbing & Mechanical. The show's producers used that series for much of their source material. (Next year PM Engineer will revisit and embellish that series for the benefit of our engineering audience.)
Most of the information they zeroed in on came from articles I had written or edited back in the 1980s. So in the days leading up to the interview session in early May, I needed to refresh my memory by rereading our entire "History of Plumbing" series. This spanned several dozen articles, as well as some original source material that was gathering cobwebs in a file cabinet. I crammed harder than I had for any exam in my college days.
In so doing, I gained a new perspective on plumbing history that hadn't occurred to me back when deadline pressures obscured the larger picture posed by reams of historical minutiae. To sum it up, that new perspective is the realization that plumbing progress did not proceed in neat linear fashion, one incremental improvement after another. The great civilizations of the ancient world in places such as Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome, on the whole enjoyed better plumbing than our American and European ancestors did, until the last century and a quarter. Here's how I reached that conclusion.
The "good old days"Plumbing equates with civilization. The societies from antiquity that we admire for their contributions to culture and technology also were clever plumbing engineers and plumbers. To construct aqueducts and sewer systems-some of which are still in use today-they were limited to the natural power sources of gravity, wind, flowing water and plenty of slaves, but they made the most out of those primitive technologies. The earliest flushing toilet has been identified among the archaeological ruins of the palace of King Minos on the island of Crete, circa 1700 B.C. The grand civilizations from antiquity also had a cultural affinity for bathing. No doubt their predilection for sanitation and cleanliness led to healthier populations than the rest of the world in their respective eras. Could this help explain why these societies endured for so long-a whopping 26 centuries in the case of the Babylonians?
Some of these ancient cultures overlapped and encountered one another, thus learning from the advances made by those preceding them. But after the fall of Rome, Western civilization took a nose dive.
The Roman Empire was the most dominant society the world had ever seen until modern times. Cecil B. De Mille movies have made us conscious of their ruthless military prowess, but the Romans also excelled like nobody before in technology and social organization. And for all the blood they shed, ancient Rome was generous in spreading its civilized ways among the peoples it conquered. Their exported plumbing systems probably saved more lives than the Roman legions slaughtered. The fabled Roman baths helped spread a culture of cleanliness throughout their empire, at least until near the end when those former community recreation centers degenerated into brothels.
The Dark AgesRot from within combined with barbarian hordes from the East put an end to Rome's achievements. This time, there were no worthy successors to carry on civilization's legacy. The warriors who laid waste to Rome were nomads and plunderers who had no appreciation for clean running water and sanitary waste disposal. The aptly named Dark Ages ensued, leading to 1,000 years of unrelenting ignorance, disease and squalor.
What tiny remnants of civilization remained were harbored mainly in monasteries, as Christianity took hold throughout the Western world. Some of the medieval monks enjoyed a semblance of sanitation, with privies set atop streams that would naturally convey away their waste even as the incoming water provided for their drinking and cooking needs. But for the most part, their lives were only a little better than the miserable lot of the common man, who faced long odds against acquiring gray hair.
The early Christians rejected all aspects of Roman culture-an understandable impulse in light of their ghastly fate as so many lion lunches. The debauchery associated with Roman baths in the latter stages of the Empire helped propel them toward the view that life's purpose was to purify the soul rather than the body. Early Christian tracts were filled with admonishment against physical comfort. One fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem was recorded as bragging that she had not washed her face in 18 years so as not to disturb the holy water that had been splashed upon it at baptism.
These attitudes prevailed throughout the millennium lasting from about the fifth through 15th centuries. As Western civilization stagnated, so did plumbing. Even kings and queens routinely died from typhoid and dysentery. Moats were open cesspools that served well to deter enemies, but imagine living in one of those castles on a hot summer day.
Slow recoveryGutenberg's printing press enabled knowledge to spread beyond monastery walls, leading to the Renaissance, which gave Western civilization something to be proud of once again. But the intense blossoming of the arts in the 15th and 16th centuries was not matched by progress in plumbing.
The earliest known flushing toilet of modern times has been attributed to Sir John Harington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth I who is said to have put the device in one of her castles as well as his own home around 1595. It was a crude contraption that inspired jokes and which the Queen reportedly declined to use. He never made another one. (No, Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet. He was a successful artisan who lived in the late 19th century and practiced plumbing among other crafts, but most of what you've heard about him is myth.)
The earliest patent for a flush toilet belonged to another Englishman, Alexander Cumming, in 1775. Improvements were made on these devices over the years, but for the next century they remained Rube Goldberg contraptions that didn't work very well and tended to reek from all the waste matter collected in their ill-fitting joints.
The Industrial Revolution, triggered by James Watt's harnessing of steam power in the mid-18th century, led to frightful conditions in European and American cities. Waves of peasants, seeking work in the burgeoning factories, crowded together in decrepit tenements without running water or sewage disposal. The rivers upon which most major cities were built became overwhelmed by the volume of waste dumped into them. England's Parliament shut down for a while in 1859 because of the stench from the nearby Thames River. A New York City newspaper in the 1830s had a daily front-page report of neighborhood cholera outbreaks. Virtually every U.S. and European city suffered hideous casualty tolls from waterborne diseases.
By the middle of the 19th century, fancier homes and buildings began to acquire indoor plumbing, but most owners were sorry they did. Toilets were tied to unvented and often poorly sloped drainage systems. Early plumbers were basically metal workers with strong arms who made their own pipe by hand, but they knew nothing of hydraulics or sanitation. The U.S. Census Bureau categorized plumbers and gas fitters in a single category until the 1880s.
The heyday of plumbingThen something profound happened that led, in the 1880s and 1890s, to a flourishing of the plumbing industry into the grand enterprise it is today.
I've seen this trend unfold from my perch as a plumbing trade magazine editor. Throughout the last decade and a half, a steady stream of press releases have crossed my desk celebrating the 100th anniversary of industry companies and trade groups. The PHCC organization began as the National Association of Master Plumbers in 1883. The forerunner of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America formed in 1889, as did the United Association plumbers union. ASSE traces its origin to around the turn of the century. Numerous plumbing manufacturers started up in the 1880s and 1890s, quite a few of which are still in business. What set off this explosion?
I think more than anything else it was the discovery and promulgation of correct venting procedures. Venting had been known for decades, but primitive plumbers tended to do it on a hit-and-miss, trial-and-error basis. There was no systematic guide as to sizing and placement of vents.
Correct venting and drainage procedures did not become widespread knowledge until the 1870s. Particularly important was the 1876 publication of George Waring's landmark book, The Sanitary Drainage of Houses and Towns, along with various other books and articles explaining how to correctly design plumbing systems that worked the way they were supposed to. And thus began the good life as we know it today.
Famed physician-writer, the late Dr. Lewis Thomas, former Chancellor of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, wrote in 1984: "There is no question that our health has improved spectacularly in the past century...One thing seems certain: It did not happen because of medicine, or medical science or even the presence of doctors.
"Much of the credit should go to the plumbers and engineers of the Western world. The contamination of drinking water by human feces was at one time the single greatest cause of human disease and death for us; it remains so, along with starvation and malaria, for the Third World. Typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery were the chief threats to survival in the early years of the 19th century in New York City, and when the plumbers and sanitary engineers had done their work in the construction of our cities these diseases began to vanish."
Viewers of the History Channel program will gain that perspective, but it's a shame everyone in the world won't see it or read Dr. Thomas' assessment. If they did, the work that you do might finally receive its due appreciation in the public's mind.
Rest assured that it has with this one citizen. Thank you, plumbing engineers. You rank high among my heroes.