The Mechanics of the Number Two: A Short History

Today, a comfortable toilet and relaxing environment to do one’s business in is just a natural and expected part of everyday life, but like most things it probably started with someone that had had enough.

Nobody really knows who invented the toilet, but the concept of getting human waste out of sight reaches back thousands of years. Stone huts made by the Skara Brae, a 31st century B.C. settlement on the Scottish mainland, had drains connected to a nearby river for natural flushing, and around 1700 B.C. the Greeks built The Palace of Knossos with large pans connected to a water supply running in pipes. Roman baths featured urinals connected to an actual sewage system, and at one point there was almost 150 public toilets in ancient Rome, consisting of rows of long benches with holes in them.  However, urinals and communal toilets were reserved for the elite, and for most Romans the only sewage system available was the streets.


In medieval England, long after the fall of the Roman Empire, royals would do their business in castle garderobes. Consisting of a room with a small opening to squat over, the castle garderobe was usually suspended over a moat, and helped to make an invasion of the castle a disgusting and rather uninviting affair. Peasants still made use of communal toilets and the streets to rid themselves of their waste, and it wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that something resembling our modern idea of a toilet appeared: a box and a lid. Louis XI of France’s toilet box was hidden behind curtains, the smell covered up with herbs, and Elizabeth I had her toilet covered in crimson velvet and bound with lace. For non-royals, however, the height of toilet sophistication was ornamental chamber pots disguised as books and pretty storage boxes, while the norm was basic bedpans, and it was very much a possibility to have a chamber pot emptied over your head while strolling through town.


 The invention of the water closet as we know it today, saving us from undesirable flying objects, is credited to Sir John Harington, Elizabeth I’s godson, who in 1596 published the book A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax describing a toilet with a flush valve and wash-down for emptying the bowl. The first patent for a flushing toilet, however, was not granted until 1775, when Scottish inventor Alexander Cummings developed the water-filled S-shaped tube to suppress smell, and it was after this the flushable toilet took off.


So, next time you’re sat on your Geberit Aquaclean 8000 Plus Wall Hung toilet with built-in spray arm, air dryer and heated soft-close toilet seat, checking Twitter and Facebook while reading a good book, give a little thanks to Sir John Harington and Alexander Cummings, and count your lucky stars that you don’t have to throw your poo out the window.

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