Flushing Away the Myths

It’s time to flush a myth down the drain.

As much as we’d like to attach the last name of Thomas Crapper to the invention of the toilet, we can’t. Crapper, in fact, did exist — he was a plumber in London — and he did make a lot of improvements in the function of the early toilet. He did not, however, invent the toilet.

Credit for the early version of the flushing toilet, or the 'water closet' as it is called in Europe, goes to a 16th century author. Way back in 1596, Sir John Harington installed an early version of the toilet in the palace of Queen Elizabeth I. The Queen also happened to be his godmother. Talk about close connections!

The first patent for a flushing version of the water closet was awarded to Alexander Cummings in 1775. He modified the shape of the bowl and also designed a toilet with the water supply lower in the bowl. Cummings also created an “S” shaped plumbing design. All of these modifications were significant improvements, but there were also problems. When the seal leaked, explosive and bacteria-filled sewer gases got into the home. That’s not a good thing.

Three years later, a new patent for a working water closet was awarded to Joseph Bramah, who replaced a slide valve with a hinged flap that sealed the bottom of the bowl. There were still some issues, but progress was being made. The flushing water closet wasn’t totally successful until the 1860s. Amazingly, the system hasn’t changed much ever sense. 

As for Thomas Crapper, he was awarded nine patents for plumbing innovations during his career. Three of those were for improvements to the flushing water closet, including the floating ballcock, which regulates the water level in the tank. Crapper also heavily promoted the concept of sanitary plumbing and the idea of the bathroom fittings showroom. That makes sense, since he owned the world’s first bath, toilet and sink showroom. It was in London and it was called, not surprisingly, Thomas Crapper and Co.

By the way, friends of mine who recently went to London tell me that manhole covers in London that bear his company’s name are a minor tourist attraction. Visitors like to take “selfies” with the “Thomas Crapper” manhole covers.

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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