I have decided that people are like turtles – we can't go home again, so we carry a piece of our old home around with us. We keep 25 feet of the primitive earth's atmosphere trapped in our intestinal tracts, occupied by little buggies who die in the presence of oxygen and breath and exhale methane and hydrogen sulfide. They turn what you eat into what keeps you alive. But in order to stay healthy, you have to keep the bugs in your gut from getting above your neck, around your mouth, nose or eyes. And off your hands, because you put you fingers on your face about 2,000 times a day. Trust me. If its on your hands, it will end up in your face. Modern humans have invented a device making it harder for the bugs in your gut to get to your face too often; The flush toilet. Pull the lever and your stinky, dangerous poo vanishes, as if it were never there, just the way it used to in the Garden of Eden.
But a flush toilet is not just a hole in the floor with water running through it. The Romans built those, and the found they not only stank, they were also dangerous. Methane can explode at anything higher than a 5% concentration and hydrogen sulfide above 4%, giving a naval meaning to the term “powder room”. Both gases are lighter than air, so they tend to rise back into the place they came from. The Romans even had a prayer asking the god of sewers to please not burn their bums in the occasional fecal flash over. So before a home toilet could be perfected, a way of keeping the stinky hydrogen sulfide and explosive methane down and out of the “lieux a soupape” had to be found.
Some of the best minds in the world tackled this problem. Benjamin Franklin thought he had “a cheap and easy” solution. “The excrement may be received in...proper cisterns. The excrement are soon dissolved in water.” If he had kept at it, Franklin might have invented the septic tank. But he got distracted by politics, leaving the problem to be attacked by a Edinburg Mr. Fix-It and a crippled Yorkshire tinkerer, both of whom thought more about money than they did about politics. Which is odd since English politics would play such a crucial role in starting this story.
In 1745 the last rebellion of the highland Scottish clans was smashed on the field at Culloden. Lowland Scotsman John Campbell, the 5th Duke of Argyl, chose to fight for the winning side, and he was rewarded by the English King with honors and £21,000 in gold. To display his new fortune, Campbell decided his new castle at the foot of the highlands in Inverness (above), needed a new pipe organ, and he hired two mechanically inclined young Scotsmen men to build it - John and Alexander Cumming. Impressed with the younger boy's mechanical talents, Campbell bought Alexander an apprenticeship to a clock maker, and then in 1752 set him up in business in Inverary as a watchmaker. For a cut of all his future profits, of course.
Alexander (above) was very good at making watches and watch-work driven mechanical devices for wealthy patrons, and within a few years moved his business to the fashionable Bond Street in London.
In 1765 King George III commissioned him to build a clock that also recorded the barometric readings for an entire year (above). And it was this project that lead Alexander Cumming to the toilet problem, although he didn't entirely trust his own fix.
Now, for something over fifteen hundred years, Catholic theology had enshrined the ideas of Aristotle - the earth is at the center of the universe, the stars are fixed and unchanging, nature abhors a vacuum, and air has no weight. People were burned at the stake for questioning the Macedonian tutor. Then in 1640, the free thinking Italian, Gasparo Berti poured water into the open end of a glass tube sealed at the bottom. He then inverted the tube in a bowl (above). When he removed his finger from the bottom opening, naturally, the water drained into the bowel. But the tube never completely emptied. This proved Aristotle wrong twice. First, the empty space appearing between the top of the tube and the new water level, was a vacuum, which Aristotle said did not exist. And secondly, the supposedly weightless air pressing down on the water in the bowl, held up the water column in the tube. Berti had invented the barometer. And a hundred-thirty years later Cumming turned Berti's invention into the world's first flush toilet. Almost.
Cumming wrote, “The advantage of this water closet, depends upon the shape of the bowl.” But that was just a sales pitch. Alexander farmed out the bowls to Wedgwood for the production models. And in most of its functions, his water closet was not so much revolution as evolution. After “doing your business”, you pulled the handle. That slid open a copper valve at the bottom of the bowl, at the same time releasing water from the storage tank, which washed your “business” down the pipe. And that was where the Cumming evolution started.
What Cumming actually invented, and what he patented, was the original “U” tube, also known as a plumbing “trap”. In his revolutionary design, just below the bowl Alexander added an “S” turned on its side in the pipe. After every flush air pressure held a reservoir of water in the bottom of the first “U” bend which blocked the lighter than air noxious gases from escaping up from the lower levels in the system, be it a latrine, a cesspit or a sewer. It was simple. It required no moving parts - the valve sealing the bowl served the customer's expectations only. Alexander Cumming's 1775 patent for a flush toilet was far more revolutionary than Franklin's American Revolution, and it was a lot quieter.
Alexander's design had just three small problems. First – if the water in the U-trap should evaporate, the gases would float back into the “water closet”. Second - below the “U” trap there was now a slight negative air pressure, which encouraged the occasional unpleasant blow back up the pipes. Third - the copper valve over the drain at the bottom of the bowl - which, thanks to the “U” trap, it didn't actually need, but the customers expected – that seal was not water or air tight. And as the copper valve was also periodically coated with crap, flushing only partially cleaned it. And the valve had a tendency to rust, and stick and stink. And fourth, the seal between the bowl and the pipes usually leaked, adding to the ordour of the powder room. And this was when the second genius arrives in our story, a crippled farm kid cum cabinetmaker named Joseph Bramah (below).
Braham was working for a London plumber, installing Cumming water closets, and dealing with angry customers. Complaint number one over the winter of 1776-77 was that the thin sliver of water left in the bowl after flushing, tended to freeze, locking the valve closed.
Bramah fixed that by replacing it with a simple flap (above), and left more water in the bowl to prevent freezing.. Bramah got a patent for it in 1778, and another for inventing a float valve that would automatically refill the water tank after every flush. When Cumming saw what the kid from Yorkshire had done, he went back to his watches. And with the fortune he made, Joseph Bramah turned his Denmark Street water closet factory into a sideline, invested the profits into making locks, and the machinery to make locks.
And that was where toilet development got stuck until somebody dealt with the problem of what to do with your poo, after you flushed the toilet.
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