Last updated on November 28th, 2022 at 10:36 pm
The toilet is one of the most useful innovations in history. Its history goes back to the 18th century when Alexander Cumming received the first patent for the flush toilet, an exciting innovation at the time.
But the history of the toilet isn’t tied to only Cumming; Sir John Harrington and Ismail al-Jazari are also mentioned as inventors of the toilet. This article explores the history behind the innovation and how one man, Cummings, got the patent and became recognized as the inventor.
Neolithic, Roman, and Medieval Times
The idea and design of a toilet that carried off human waste using running water existed over 5000 years ago. There is evidence of running toilets used during the Neolithic era and in the ancient Roman and Mohenjo-Dara empires.
The Romans, at some point, had public toilets, much like public baths, which people treated like a social event. The toilets were designed to catch waste under flowing water.
Users could clean up using washable sponges attached to short sticks. While the public toilets were open to most people, those considered to be at the lower rung of society did not have access and continued to use other means.
At the same time, people used the disposable pot method.
Further away in the Elizabethan era, medieval Europe had also learned to install and use a running water toilet.
Royal families and rich people had toilets installed below natural or artificially-channeled water, usually close to their homes or sometimes within. It was common to mask the smell using herbs and special oil scents.
The government even organized a way to dispose of wastes in the river Thames, causing a serious wave of pollution and disease in the country. The poor continued to defecate in open fields, the street ends, and other areas that communities silently approved for use.
But something else was going on far away in Arabia.
Ismail al-Jazari was a legendary Arabic engineer, designer, mathematician, and polymath famous for his inventions and ideas, which many consider having inspired some famous inventors over the years. al-Jazari is also considered one of the fathers of the modern flush toilet.
In 1206, he invented the flushing hand-washing machine, an ancestor of the modern flush toilet. al-Jazari’s machine used a contraption that released water when triggered so that users could easily control water flow when washing their hands. The machine was particularly intriguing because of its design.
It featured a humanoid female standing with a jar of water that tips over to release water when the lever is pulled. The humanoid would then refill the jar once the water was used up.
This principle would later be used in modern flush toilets, working similarly to lush water and refilling the water tank.
But many years later, the story again moved to England, where a knight took an interest in making toilets more convenient and smarter than the ones they had.
Sir John Harrington
Sir John Harrington was the godson of Queen Elizabeth I and also a courtier. In 1596, Harrington described his idea for a flush toilet that could remove waste using water and replace the water automatically.
The idea was a 2-foot deep oval bowl made waterproof with wax and other materials and supplied water from a small tank. The bowl was kept on a floor below the tank and was connected with a pipe.
The tanks supplied 7.5 gallons of water to flush the waste and were triggered by the pull of a lever. Harrington designed the bowl size so that a few people could use it before flushing it in times of water scarcity.
He named the device “Ajax,” apparently derived from the lang “a jakes,” which was commonly used for toilets in that era. Harrington would be commissioned to install the toilet in the Redmond Castle for Queen Elizabeth I.
No other notable inventor or researcher made history for improving Harrington’s device until Alexander Cumming in 1775.
Alexander Cumming was a Scottish inventor famous for getting the modern water cistern patent and being a watch and instruments maker. Cumming received the patent for inventing the S curve of flush toilets that improves the flushing capacity and prevents.
Cumming also improved Harrington’s flush mechanism, increasing the pressure and fluidity of the lever so that the water is easily refilled upon pulling the lever. He added a valve and other contraptions to improve water flow and storage. He received the patent for the toilet in 1775 and is now credited with the invention.
Before the invention of the flush toilet, human and animal waste, dead animals, and chemicals were common contaminants of drinking water, resulting in cholera outbreaks and death. The invention of the toilet and modern improvements such as sewer systems greatly reduced cholera and deaths linked to contaminated drinking water.
The history of the toilet goes back many millennia ago, when man conceived the idea of using running water to remove waste primarily to reduce the burden of disposal and improve comfort. From the Roman to the Elizabethan era, running water to dispose of waste gained acceptance.
Prominent inventors, Ismail al-Jazari Sir John Harrington played crucial roles in the design and manufacture of the flush toilet, but it is Alexander Cumming who made the most important improvement, perhaps, and is now credited as the inventor.
Although other people have worked on the flush toilet to bring it to today’s version, the early inventors conceived and birthed the idea.