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On the Throne - a history of toilets

For use with Talking Point worksheets

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On the Throne - a history of toilets

Postby TalkingPoint » Mon Nov 03, 2008 1:10 pm

Toilets: A Brief History

Toilets, complete with seats and proper drainage pipes, have allegedly been around for thousands of years. Archaeologists claim that early civilizations knew how to make such sophisticated toilets as far back as 4,500 years ago. However, somewhere in the course of history this knowledge was lost.

In the 16th century inventing the toilet (or more probably ‘reinventing the toilet’) was, by all accounts, not easy. Early inventors were ridiculed by their peers for their efforts. Most people seemed quite happy to use a chamber pot, or a trench or hole in the ground. Nevertheless the intrepid pioneers laboured on. One of the earliest names in the history of the toilet is that of one Sir John Harrington, an Englishman, whose godmother was none other than Queen Elizabeth I. In 1596 Sir John made a toilet for his famous godmother, who was apparently very appreciative of it. Others, however, were less complimentary and the idea didn’t catch on.

The next important name to come to prominence as far as early toilets are concerned, is Alexander Cummings. In the late 1770s he made an important contribution to the development of the water closet by means of inventing the S-trap (a kind of valve under the toilet bowl). At this point the idea started to take off. Patents were applied for in 1777 and 1778 as inventors began to improve on the Cummings design. It took another one hundred years, however, for toilet design to make real progress. It wasn’t until 1885 that the design of the toilet was revolutionized by a man called Thomas Twyford, who built the first porcelain loo. (Previously toilets had been made mostly of wood.) Twyford worked in the pottery industry, a sector which quickly caught on to the idea of china toilets. Soon Twyford had competition from other famous British china and porcelain companies, such as Doulton and Wedgewood.

Toilet design continued to be refined, not only in England but also in the USA. Among the earliest Americans to receive a patent for their water closet design were William Campbell and James Henry, in 1875. The following year one William Smith was granted a patent for a toilet in which the water gushed into the bowl thanks to a jet-siphon device. This idea attracted George Waring who went on to develop the idea further, with great success.

By the end of the nineteenth century innovations in toilet design were rife. In the first thirty years of the 20th century no fewer than 350 hopeful inventors applied to the US Patent Office for patents regarding their toilet designs.

And toilet design continues apace even now. The Japanese are the modern world’s toilet pioneers. Japanese toilet-making companies compete fiercely to launch new and ever more technically and technologically advanced loos on the market. Today’s toilets can do everything from glow in the dark to measure your body-fat ratio by sending a small electric charge through your buttocks! Tourists beware! The Japanese are even developing futuristic ‘smart’ toilets which will respond to voice commands and monitor users for early signs of ill-health. The information would then be sent, by the toilet itself, to the user’s doctor via an Internet connection built into the loo.

And so it seems that the evolution of the humble toilet is nowhere near complete. One has to wonder if the inventors of early water closets, so unappreciated in their day, had any idea where it would all lead in the centuries to come!


Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.

1. __________ claim that early civilizations knew how to make such sophisticated toilets as far back as 4,500 years ago.

2. In 1596 Sir John made a toilet for his famous godmother, who was apparently very appreciative of it. Others, however, were less complimentary and the idea didn’t catch __________.

3. In the late 1770s Alexander Cummings made an important contribution to the development of the water closet by means of inventing the S-trap (a kind of valve under the toilet bowl). At this point the idea started to take __________.

4. Patents were applied for in 1777 and 1778 as inventors began to improve on the Cummings design. It took another one hundred years, however, for toilet design to __________ real progress.

5. It wasn’t until 1885 that the design of the toilet was revolutionized by a man called Thomas Twyford, who __________ the first porcelain loo.

6. Toilet design continued to be __________, not only in England but also in the USA.

7. __________ Japanese are the modern world’s toilet pioneers.

8. And so it seems that the evolution of the __________ toilet is nowhere near complete.
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