You use your bathroom every day, but have you ever thought about the origins of plumbing and plumbing hardware? If you’re like most and take running water and toilets for granted, you may be surprised to know that plumbing has a very long and interesting history…
There’s an eventful history behind the evolution of plumbing materials used through the ages right up to modern times. Since its most relevant and affects us all in one way or the other, it’s worth knowing about the progression of material usage and innovations, over time. Going back to the Roman Empire, piping constructed of lead and clay was the first reliable material used to deliver potable water to bathhouses, amphitheatres, and private residences all over the Empire.
The very first system of pipes to carry water from one place to another was built in the Indus Valley Civilization. Buildings here had wells and bathing areas with drains in the floors. They had bathrooms with septic tanks, very similar to modern-day bathrooms.
Under King Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon had become the most magnificent city of ancient times. His palace had separate bathrooms with elaborate drains as well as latrines with raised seats, connected to a covered sewer system. The king’s bath ritual was in the form of water being poured over him by slaves.
The Palace’s most magnificent feature was the Hanging Gardens. To irrigate the trees planted atop a 7 m high wall, Babylonians used a mechanical device called the Shaduf. A Shaduf used a fulcrum and wooden beam with a bucket at the end to raise the water for emptying to elevated troughs.
Gravity driven bamboo pipelines. Note water-lifting system on right.
By this time, in places like China, hollow bamboo reeds were used as pipes to carry fresh water and natural gas to and from the ancient salt mines.
On the island of Crete, Minoan Kings had bathrooms with hot and cold running water. The Minoan Palace of Knossos used ceramic bathtubs along with the world’s first flushing toilet complete with drainage systems.
The earliest plumbing pipe was made of baked clay and straw while the Egyptians made the first copper pipes. The Egyptian plumbing process was as formidable as their building expertise. In their search for water, Egyptians dug wells as deep as 300 feet, and the water wheel was born here.
Egyptians were the first and only people to build bathrooms for the dead.
The Greeks advanced the art and science of plumbing. Hot and cold running water and bathtubs were part of everyday life in ancient Greece. The Greeks pioneered shower technology for athletes to bathe after the Olympic games where water moved through overhead pipes and came out through sculpted shower heads.
But the most magnificent accomplishments in plumbing were those of the Romans.
More than 1000 years ago, the Romans built water channels that carried water from the mountains into the city, which distributed it through underground supply lines made of lead. That is where the term ‘Plumbing’ originated, as ‘Plumus’ in Latin means Lead. These lead pipes also carried water to the Roman Baths, supplied with hot water, heated by wood and furnaces. These baths had elaborate steam rooms accomplished by pumping hot air through channels beneath the floors. Wastewater ran into sewer pipes that emptied into the Tiber River. The largest of sewer pipes carrying wastewater was the Cloaca Maxima, which had already been built half a century earlier.
Public latrines had 20 seats or more arranged in a circular manner, where water constantly ran beneath them, to carry the waste into the nearest sewer.
Overcrowding in cities resulted in the production of excessive waste causing the outbreak of many diseases and thousands of people lost their lives to water-borne diseases caused by polluted drinking water as safe, sanitary practices and hygiene had never been considered till then.
After the fall of the Roman and Greek empires, plumbing technology and its advances came to a standstill in Europe until many decades later.
Plumbing practices in Medieval England and Europe
Traces of early sanitary practices existed in monasteries and castles of feudal lords in England. Most castles in England had Garderobes, a Garderobe being a projection with a seat on which you sat, and the waste simply dropped into the soil, moat or river below. Menials were made to scrape and carry away this waste.
For washing-up, every home had a washstand in the bedroom which a maid would bring up with a jug of hot water and a jug of cold water. After washing –up, emptying the water was a simple process of opening the window and tossing the waste water out into the street. Before emptying the pot passer’s by below were warned by the phrase Gardyloo means “mind the water”, and that is how the term ‘loo’ came into existence. Renaissance brought in new independent thinking and thereby a new interest in hygiene, and so began a steady march towards indoor plumbing.
Like everybody else in those times, Queen Elizabeth1 had a bath once a month. Before indoor plumbing, bathtubs were simply filled and emptied by hand.
Using the toilet was another matter altogether. The Queen’s godson, John Harington invented the first flush toilet for the Queen at her residence at Richmond Palace. Historians and sources close to the Queen reveal that although enthusiastic about the flushing toilet, the queen was afraid to use it. She is believed to have said that the apparatus made scary sounds like thunderstorms with terrifying rushes of water every time it was used.
The concept of the shower began in ancient times with outdoor waterfalls and buckets of water. The first water system in America was built in Boston in the mid-1600s. This proved to be one of the milestones in the city’s history and helped to build the city into a modern-day Metropolis.
King Louis XIV of France ordered the construction of main plumbing lines made of cast iron.
The first valve-type flush toilet was introduced in 1738 by a man named J.F. Brondel. Also in the year 1775, Alexander Cumming, a Scottish watchmaker, and inventor became the first Englishman to patent design of the flush toilet. The design still survives today and was the forerunner of the modern toilet.
Joseph Bramah improvised Cumming’s invention using hinged valves. His creation is the prototype for closets aboard ships and boats.
In 1795, wooden pipelines were built to carry water for firefighting using hollow logs of wood. The firemen had to drill through the walls of these pipes and after they finished, plug the hole. This is how the term ‘fireplug’ originated. By early 1700, New York City had its own system of wooden mains, but they were hardly adequate to meet the growing city’s needs.
One of the earliest modern-style showers was the English Regency Shower that pumped water continually from a lower basin to a cistern directly above the bathers head using the same wastewater. It was considered a novelty even among the aristocrats of those times.