Innovations, improvements we take for granted
September 2, 2023
I have often thought about people who contributed to the quality of our everyday lives because of their contributions through improving existing technology.
We are constantly confronted with new and improved items from Ginsu knives to venetian blind cleaners. Improvements large and small are touted as the new best thing. Some innovations take a long time to become a part of our daily lives and it was true with our modern plumbing. In 1969, the inflated legend of Thomas Crapper was touted as the inventor of the flush toilet in the book written by Wallace Reyburn. Thomas, contrary to popular belief, was not the inventor but one of the innovators who profited from his advances.
The flush toilet was patented by the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir John Harrington in 1592. He installed a water closet for the Queen that consisted of a raised cistern and a down pipe. When the water was released, at the rate of 7.5 gallons per flush, it rushed down the pipe and washed the waste away. The torrent of water was immense and wasteful, but the clever Harrington argued that by flushing after 20 people had used it was, in fact, doable. However, Queen Elizabeth I was not impressed and rejected his invention. But, when you think about the British penchant to commemorate all events with signs like, "King Edward IV Slept Here," or "King Henry VIII Drank Here," perhaps Elizabeth I was avoiding the kind of sign that would have commemorated her flush toilet experience.
Unfortunately, the Queen's disinterest and certain issues with this invention itself kept it from catching on. It was not revived until almost 200 years later. One issue was resolved by Alexander Cummings, a Scottish watchmaker, in 1775 with his patented S-shaped drainpipe design that prevented odors, once flushed away, from wafting upward and back into the water closet. The popularity of the flush toilet was revived in London in the 1800s but there was no thought of how to handle the resulting outflow of sewage. Streets and rivers became polluted. Drinking water was compromised and tens of thousands died of water-borne diseases. This condition soon made London life intolerable, and the British government got involved to set in motion the sewer system of the country.
Thomas was born in 1836 and became a plumber's apprentice at the young age of 14. He had several patents on the floating ballcock as well as his improvements on the S-bend with the U-bend. He was not the inventor, but he did improve the flush valve. In the 1880s, Thomas was hired by Prince Edward (later King Edward VII) to construct lavatories in several royal palaces. He also continued to serve the crown under King George IV. Thomas was a self-proclaimed sanitary engineer who had a brass foundry that produced plumbing parts. He developed better toilets and proudly opened the first plumbing parts showroom in history. Of course, this caused a lot of commotion as it was considered brazen to have toilets on public display, but his gamble paid off. Thomas Crapper also had a talent for marketing and spread his fame by proudly stamping his name on all his products including every toilet produced.
During WWI, the American Doughboys, whether stationed with British troops or on a British ship, became very familiar with the product with "T. Crapper" emblazoned on it. Soon the last name became slang in sentences like, "I'm going to the..." In fact, it soon made its way into American lexicon. The story of Thomas became a legend with the book "Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper" which enhanced, and recklessly embellished, Thomas' life and career. But his contribution cannot be denied. I shudder to think what our condition would be like without the contributions of innovators like Thomas. Even though he did not invent anything his innovations are to be admired and appreciated.