Profile in Sewage: Thomas Crapper
Toilets through time
Plumbing, including toilets, baths, sewers, water supply, draining and irrigation, existed in crude form as far back as 4000 years ago. Sitting type toilets with stone or wooden seats existed by 2100 B.C. in ancient Egypt (with clay pots filled with sand underneath – a sort of human litter box). By 720 B.C., Assyrian royalty including Sargon the Great, had privies with a hole in the floor and a cesspool underneath.
Believe it or not, the first "water closet" is likewise nearly 2000 years old. In China's Han dynasty in roughly 220 B.C., according to evidence in his tomb, the king enjoyed a toilet with running water, a stone seat and even a comfortable armrest – probably for comfort while reading early catalogs.
So the fact is, many cultures in many places invented various types of toilets. Unfortunately, empires fell and collective knowledge was lost, leading to the dark ages in which toilet technology regressed, disease reigned and life was not for the squeamish. You would not have wanted to have to go to the bathroom then.
Then, in a spectacular plumbing renaissance, the Thomas Edison of toilets came along, the man who is credited with inventing the flush toilet: Thomas Harrington. In 1596, he built a water closet for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth. This device had a seat, a bowl and behind it a cistern of water for washing away the contents. Talk about a royal flush!
But back to our subject – a man who did not invent the toilet but still had reasons to be flushed with pride.
Will the real Thomas Crapper please stand up?
Thomas Crapper WAS a historical figure who was born in 1836, apprenticed with a master plumber at age 14, established his own company in 1861 and became one of the most successful toilet manufacturers in England.
He was also a plumbing and toilet innovator who held nine patents, including one for a spring-loaded seat that flushed as the user stood up (this did not catch on). He created a quieter pull chain, a U-bend siphoning system, and the "disconnecting trap" underground drains fitting which greatly advanced the cause of disease prevention.
Crapper & Co. installed plumbing and toilets for Prince Edward of Wales and for Queen Victoria. Contrary to popular opinion, Mr. Crapper was not knighted, though we think he should have been, for his name alone.
People mistakenly believe Thomas Crapper invented the toilet because American World War I servicemen saw the name Thomas Crapper & Company stamped on the toilets in Europe. When the GI's returned home from the war, they referred to the toilet as the "crapper."
Likewise, the origins of the world "crap" precede Mr. Crapper's birth by a couple hundred years. But it's hard to deny we owe Thomas Crapper a lot: for contributing one of the funniest, most endearing and enduring trades-related legends ever.