Picture this: you need to use the bathroom. Not that hard to imagine, right? But what if you lived before indoor plumbing was common?
If you lived in ancient Greece, you might use a drainage system in which waste and water flowed downhill, away from your society. If you were alive in early modern history, you might have been lucky enough to have access to a water system. The year before the United States would earn her independence, you may have read about the new prototype developed by Alexander Cumming — a toilet that could refill on its own!
Many of us can’t easily imagine a life in which we don’t have easy access to plumbing, but throughout the years, many advancements have been made to bring us to where we are today. Our team is going back in time to share the timeline of some of the most important (and interesting) advancements in plumbing technology throughout the years!
What was the first civilization to have plumbing?
The answer to this question may not be as straightforward as it may seem: many civilizations in the Stone Age didn’t have a written language and therefore had almost no record of their society and how it functioned. Nevertheless, the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages gave the world many great plumbing works:
The Bronze Age: 3300 - 1200 BCE
From the Indus Valley to Ancient Egypt, ancient civilizations had many ingenious methods and inventions to help transport water and waste to and from their settlements.
3500 - 3000 BCE
A town in what is now Pakistan is credited by many experts as being the birthplace of the urban sanitation system!
Mohenjo-daro had an estimated population of 40,000 people at its peak. Many homes had small private wells to get their own water from, and certain homes even had private rooms reserved for bathing. Wastewater could exit through covered drains and be piped out of the home in terracotta pipes and chutes that led to drains alongside the streets.
Ancient Egyptians used copper piping in their pyramids. The irrigation systems and bathrooms were built in accordance with the belief that the dead needed to have access to living essentials such as food and clothing.
The Iron Age: 1200 - 550 BCE
The Iron Age is defined as the time during which iron and steel tools started to be used more and viewed as superior to their bronze counterparts. The widespread use of iron led to many technological advancements throughout the world.
1500 - 1000 BCE
Ancient builders in Crete create an entire lavatory system — complete with sinks, bathrooms, and manholes! The system was engineered with the influence of the steep incline of the island. Gravity helped carry wastewater away from buildings in terracotta pipes.
One of the earliest records of a shower came from Sargon the Great — according to records, he told his slaves to stand on a ladder and pour cool buckets of water over him. Elegant? Possibly. Effective? Definitely.
500 BCE - 476 CE
In Ancient Rome, bathhouses were a large part of the culture. These bathhouses were only able to run because of the complex and advanced aqueduct system built by the ancient engineers. The Romans are also credited with the widespread use of lead piping — thought it would eventually contribute to the fall of their society.
The Golden Age of Plumbing
We know the Renaissance to be a bright spot in our history in terms of the arts, but there are many other changes throughout this period.
The Middle Ages to the Renaissance: 1250 - 1500 CE
Many more well-known plumbing inventions come to us from this time period. When you think of modern plumbing, this is likely the area in history where you can start to recognize things a little more easily.
Skipping ahead a little, plumbing started to take on a familiar shape in the invention of the first flushing toilet! Legend has it that Sir John Harrington (the godson of Queen Elizabeth I) created a bowl design attached to a water tub to refill the bowl after using it. The queen was so impressed by his invention she had him create one for the palace.
200 years after sir John’s toilet was invented, Alexander Cummings received a patent for a design with one major upgrade — the S-trap. This S shaped pipe used water to create a seal that prevented sewer gas from entering the toilet. Sound familiar? It should — this is one of the major toilet systems still in use today!
Recent Advancements in Plumbing Technology
Plumbing has made many more advancements in recent years, thanks to large strides in materials, knowledge, and industry.
Modern History: 1800 CE - Today
1804 - 1810 CE
Philadelphia was the first U.S. city that used an entirely cast-iron plumbing system. Prior to this, many civilizations used wooden pipes, which had a major downside of being unable to regulate water pressure.
The Tremont Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts, is considered the first modern hotel of its time — this is due to the fact that the hotel offered indoor toilets and running water to guests.
The White House installs plumbing on the first floor — it would be a few decades until the second floor of the building got the same upgrades.
Water heaters and the ceramic toilet make their debut in smaller homes and buildings throughout the United States.
This decade saw the development and implementation of the first standardized plumbing codes in the United States. Future U.S. President Herbert Hoover and Dr. Roy B. Hunter published the ‘Hoover Code’ in 1928.
World War II affected the country in many ways, one of which was a shortage of metals. Polyvinyl chloride — or PVC — pipes were laid for use as water pipes in 1952. Most pipes made for use today are PVC since it’s cheap to make and reliable.
Many of the modern plumbing innovations you’ll see today are simply more advanced and efficient methods of this same technology. Water heaters can be mounted on your wall, toilets can have two different flushes, and bidet attachments are becoming more and more common. For all your plumbing needs, contact the EJ Plumbing team at (650) 513-8852.