Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard France (© Finn)

American plumbers have accomplished more in two centuries than the Romans did in 10. Now their works are in danger of falling apart.

When it comes to plumbing history, all roads surely do lead to Rome. Plumbing technology flourished during the Roman Empire in a way that wasn't duplicated for more than 1,000 years.

The ancient Romans were the best plumbers who ever lived, except for American plumbers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Rome's sanitary drainage systems were the best the world had seen until the 1800s in America. Their public baths stand as marvels of engineering genius and craftsmanship in any age. Some aqueducts they built 2,000 years ago are still in use today. Rome spread this plumbing knowledge and technology to numerous conquered lands.

The Roman Empire doesn't come off very well in Cecil B. DeMille movies. The verdict of history judges it guilty of much tyranny throughout its 1,000-year reign. But gee whiz, those guys sure were competent!

As has happened so often in ancient and recent history alike, an objectionable regime was replaced by a ruling order that proved incomparably worse. Rome's brutal ways were like puppy kisses next to the wantonness of their barbarian conquerors. Worst of all, the bloodthirsty tribes that dominated Europe after the fall of Rome brought no compensating good to offset their savagery.

No art, literature or technology. No tradition of democracy and debate. No knowledge of and appreciation for sanitary plumbing. Western civilization sank into a squalor of ignorance and disease that lasted as long as the Roman Empire, and wasn't completely overcome until the 20th century.

Great progress, then stark digression, each lasting about a millennium, is the grand historical overview of Western civilization. The history of plumbing parallels it epoch by epoch.

Beginning with the Renaissance, Western man - and plumbing - began to emerge from the cultural sinkhole of the Dark and Middle Ages.

Redevelopment went slowly for several hundred years, then accelerated like a rocket. The symbol of a rocket, in fact, conjures up one of the most incredible bursts of progress - going from the Wright brothers to space flight in little more than half a century.

Meanwhile, here on earth, American plumbers of the last 200 years have done an equally miraculous job eradicating disease, increasing life-spans and providing comfort and convenience for rich and poor alike. This feat deserves much more than the passing mention, if that, it receives in history books.

Schoolbook History

History as we were taught it in our school days was mostly about monarchs and military leaders. Their conquests and defeats are portrayed as the epic events that shaped the world we live in today.

All true, I suppose, but also somewhat misleading. Like scriptwriters for TV cop shows, historians tend to let rare moments of action obscure the mundane realities of everyday life. For instance, we all know of the great battles of the American Civil War and their terrible casualties.

What's not so widely known is that typhoid, dysentery and cholera killed twice as many soldiers as all that blood-curdling combat.

Wars, revolutions and assassinations have indeed changed the course of history. But so have the bacteria that have been tamed by modern plumbers.

William the Conqueror, victor at the Battle of Hastings and forefather of modern Britain, died in 1087 from what sketchy historical writings suggest may have been typhoid fever. In 1861, Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, succumbed to the same disease. In between,

English history further records two Roman-numeraled Edwards, a John and a Henry among the royal toll from sanitation-related diseases, and who knows how many more went undiagnosed or unreported. For that matter, who knows how many would-be leaders of the world fell victim while still princelings and lieutenants.

We're referring to some of the world's wealthiest, most powerful royalty. These were people provided with the best of everything. Today's museums display some of their solid gold chamberpots.

Little did they realize that a crude flush toilet would have been much more valuable. And if even monarchs suffered from poor sanitation, think how bleak life must have been for the unwashed masses who, as the common refrain goes, had nary a pot to pee in!

Modern Heroes

We can get an inkling from Dr. Lewis Thomas, Chancellor of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and one of the world's most renowned immunologists. An article he published in the Spring 1984 edition of Foreign Affairs, "Scientific Frontiers and National Frontiers: A Look Ahead," argued the need for global cooperation in science and technology. One of his key points was to criticize our country's policy of building high-tech medical facilities in underdeveloped countries. What would benefit the Third World much more, he pointed out, is decent plumbing.

"There is no question that our health has improved spectacularly in the past century," wrote Dr. Thomas.

"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 nineteenth century in New York City, and when the plumbers and sanitary engineers had done their work

Falling Apart

The best plumbing systems in the history of mankind are in need of billions of dollars' worth of repair, replacement and additions.

The Associated General Contractors of America estimates that our country needs to invest almost $3.3 trillion - with a "t" - in infrastructure projects over the next 20 years. Of that total, some $815 billion, more $40 billion a year, is pegged for potable water, wastewater treatment and drainage improvements.

AGC is part of a coalition called "Rebuild America," comprised of 10 other construction industry groups and associations of public officials.

The figures just cited are from an alarming report they produced that tells how our nation's infrastructure is aging and degrading to the point of danger.

Make that past the point of danger. It has been estimated that a quarter of our nation's bridges are unsafe. Upwards of 4,000 are closed and a lot more probably should be. More than 100 collapse every year, though we only hear of the ones that drop unsuspecting motorists to their deaths.

Deterioration of underground sewers and water mains is not as visible but no less real. The pipelines serving our older cities were installed well over a century ago. Rebuild America reports that leaky pipes cause some major cities to lose as much as 30 percent of their fresh water supply each day. They say we'll need to spend $7.1 billion a year over the next 20 years to repair and improve our potable water supply lines, and another $6 billion annually for drainage work.

That's the good news! The bad is that some $553 billion will be needed over the next two decades to finance wastewater treatment plants.

Even that pales beside the $1.6 trillion, $65.5 billion annually, required to fix up U. S. highways.

Out Of Mind

Our deficit-ridden federal budget can't satisfy all the big-ticket demands placed upon it, but in this matter, do we have a choice? No matter how strapped your household budget might be, you would figure out a way to finance repairs if your toilet stopped flushing or the water coming out of your faucet turned purple. It's a matter of what's important - "prioritizing," as they say in bureaucratease.

The title of the report put out by the Rebuild America Coalition is "Making America's Economy Competitive Again." They make the case that spending on infrastructure is an investment as opposed to an expenditure. They city economic thinkers from the ancient Greeks to Adam Smith to John Kenneth Galbraith in arguing that public works are critical for, in Smith's words, "facilitating the commerce of the society." They argue, for instance, that billions of dollars, and billions of gallons of fuel, are wasted each year due to transportation delays and restrictions caused by faulty roads and bridges, along with considerable vehicle damage.

And how's this for an anecdotal grabber - a worker tied up for 10 minutes each way in rush hour will waste nearly two working years of time fighting traffic in a 45-year job career!

These alarms all ring true, but nothing happens. Our crumbling infrastructure is not even on the map as an issue in this presidential election year, and it can't be blamed entirely on the money crunch. The politicians aren't afraid to come out in favor of spending zillions for Star Wars, or universal housing and health care, or various other grandiose and/or (depending on your point of view) worthwhile programs.

Nor are they averse to public works expenditures. The pork barrel bursts open every election year. It's just that the spending tends to go for new buildings and other structures that are prominent and sleek and shiny - and sometimes named after their political sponsors. Fixing something up is not as sexy as erecting something new. No politician has a sewer system named after him or her, and most no doubt would decline the honor if it were offered. That which is out of sight is out of mind, absent from our trivial public policy debates.

Save Your Legacy

This is not a happy state of affairs in the 212th year of the United States of America.

History shows us quite vividly that nothing lasts forever - not the Roman Empire, not the standards of sanitation and hygiene they engendered. Nor will the robust health and safety of the American people outlast the plumbing and piping systems that are largely responsible.

What the American plumbing industry has accomplished in the last couple of centuries will cause historians of the future to marvel, just as we do over the ruins and artifacts of the Roman Empire.

Unless we put some pressure on our elected officials, ruins and artifacts will be all that's left of our industry's glorious legacy.