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A room with a loo – a potted history of the British bathroom

5/23/2017

You use your bathroom every day and probably take its engineering miracles for granted. But British bathrooms weren’t always little rooms full of brilliant design. Here’s a short timeline of developments

1596 – John Harington invents the first flushing toilet (sort of)
While popular myth has it that Thomas Crapper pioneered the flush loo, the first such device dates to 240 years before his birth, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. John Harington, the Queen’s “saucy godson”, installed the UK’s first flushing toilet at his house near Bath.

The citizens of Harappa, in the Indus Valley civilisation (2,500-1,600 BC), enjoyed the benefits of a sophisticated sanitation system with water-flushing toilets too, but they didn’t, alas, enjoy the benefits of modern copyright laws.

1803 – We’re on a roll
Toilet paper, like practically everything except the guillotine and the skyscraper, was first invented in ancient China, circa the sixth century AD. But it wasn’t until 1798 that a Frenchman had the bright idea of putting loo paper on a continuous roll for the first time. The febrile society of revolutionary France was no environment in which to develop state-of-the-art bottom-wiping technology and two London-based brothers, Sealy and Henry Fourdrinier, picked up the idea and perfected it, leading to, in 1803, the development of the first recognisable modern bog roll.

1819 – At last, Thomas Crapper!
Well, again, sort of. The silent valve was a device quite like those found in modern toilet cisterns. It was patented by Englishman Albert Giblin in 1819. At the time, Giblin worked for a plumbing magnate called Thomas Crapper. Crapper bought the patent from Giblin and added the refinement to some ideas of his own. From 1861 cisterns bearing the Crapper name were on sale throughout the land.

The idea that the Crapper surname spawned the word “crap” seems to be apocryphal. The Old French word crappe, meaning waste or rejected matter, was present before the 14th century. 

1831 – Thomas Hawksley turns on the taps
Hawksley was a civil engineer who worked for the Trent Waterworks Company in Nottingham. In the 1820s the city was undergoing a population explosion that made reliance on the water of the nearby river Leen a major health hazard.

In 1831 Hawksley devised the UK’s first constant-pressure water system, providing a continuous source of safe, clean water for drinking or washing. The value of this invention was demonstrated when, in 1848-49, thousands of people died in a countrywide cholera epidemic, but Nottingham was barely affected.

1858 – London’s Great Stink
This frankly repulsive episode in the history of our great nation’s capital precipitated a great expansion of public sewer building. The Thames and its tributaries had been used as an ad hoc waste-disposal system for centuries. But nature could no longer wash away the refuse of the capital’s ever-growing population. In a letter to a friend, author Charles Dickens said: “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.”

The Stink was the last straw. Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette was tasked with the construction of an ambitious system of sewers – designed, if not to fix the problem, then at least to route it downstream to the Thames estuary.

1928 – The sink and the loo get a new friend
The health pioneer and breakfast cereal inventor John Harvey Kellogg patented the first device that’s recognisable as a bidet in the US in 1928. Kellogg had some quite offbeat ideas, dabbling in pantheism, sexual abstinence and yoghurt enemas, but his bidet, like his cornflakes, is a legacy of which he could be genuinely proud.

1952 – The first all-plastic cistern is introduced
Cisterns and sinks were once either ceramic or made of iron or lead – and using these materials made them expensive and heavy. By using modern, lightweight plastics, trailblazing design brand Geberit brought the kind of plumbing we now take for granted into the reach of households all across Europe. Geberit continues to innovate, melding style with technological innovation to create high-spec bathroom solutions that bring a luxurious touch to your home.

2017 – The journey continues
What’s next? Not content with hands-free flushing, heated seats and gentle, night-time illumination for midnight visits, Geberit continues to set the bathroom agenda with its state-of-the-art shower toilet range, created by London-based designer Christoph Behling.

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