Who Invented the Toilet? A Brief History of the Flush

By: Kathryn Whitbourne & Jesslyn Shields  | 
Alexander Cumming's 1775 patent for the S-trap
Alexander Cumming's 1775 patent for the S-trap laid the foundation for the modern toilet. This was the first patent related to a flushing toilet.

Consider the flush toilet. It is a fascinating device, if you think about it. This giant, porcelain chair is installed into every modern bathroom, using up gallons of precious drinking water each day to whisk your urine and feces into oblivion (better known as the municipal wastewater treatment plant nearest you) each time you flush.

But have you ever considered what else we could be doing with our poop and pee? And who invented the toilet? The truth is, you probably don't really want to think about it, and neither does anybody else, which is why the flushing toilet we 21st-century humans use hasn't changed much since it was first patented in 1775 by a Scottish watchmaker named Alexander Cumming. Cumming's toilet was an only slightly altered version of the "water closet" designed for Queen Elizabeth I by her godson Sir John Harrington in 1592 — Cumming's had an S-shaped pipe to trap bad odors while Harrington's did not. Of course, self-flushing toilets, heated seats and those vacuum potties like you see on airplanes and tour buses came later, but our one-and-done attitude towards commode innovation probably comes from the fact that we simply don't want to think about poop that much.


"Within the American culture there is still a resistance and reluctance to discuss body waste," says Deana McDonagh, a professor of industrial design in the Beckman Institute of Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The toilet has remained relatively unexplored, I think because we are failing to realize that, to quote a British saying, 'where there is muck, there is brass.' We are failing to see the potential opportunity our modest toilet is offering us because the notion of immersing yourself in such a product makes us all feel so uncomfortable."

A History of the Toilet

Thomas Crapper
Thomas Crapper (top) did not invent the flush toilet, but he certainly popularized it and was the first to display flush toilets in a showroom. Crapper also built toilets for Prince Edward VII, future king of England.
Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images

Ancient records show that the first toilet might have been in 3,000 B.C.E. in a Neolithic settlement in Scotland or at the Palace of Knossos, Greece, in 1700 B.C.E. where large earthenware pans were connected to a flushing water supply. Advanced sewer systems have been found in the Indus Valley of Northwest India dating back 4,000 years.

Going to the bathroom wasn't something people were squeamish about in the past. Poop and pee were just experiences — opportunities for relaxation and hanging out. The ancient Romans used sitting on the toilet as a time to catch up with their friends. In the year 315 C.E., Rome had 144 bustling public toilets, lined with stone benches with keyhole-shaped cutouts situated all along them, where people would sit together and do their business and maybe some gossiping, too. They wiped themselves with a sponge attached to a wooden handle.


Later, in the middle ages, you could be walking down the street and someone might throw the contents of their chamber pots out the window on you. "Sorry about it," they might say, but it would kind of be on you for walking next to their house. Fancier medieval people used a "garderobe," a little closet stuck onto the side of a castle with a hole in the floor that emptied into a moat or cesspit. Clothes were also kept in the garderobe because it was thought that the stench of human waste would keep fleas and moths out of the garments. Public garderobes in London emptied directly into the Thames, which was an unbelievably poor public health move.

As the population of Europe grew over the course of the 1800s, up to 100 people shared the same public garderobe, and the waste just washed into the rivers, tainting the drinking water supply, which explains why so many outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases bedeviled 19th century Europeans, resulting in more than half of the working class population dying before the age of 5. It was a mess.

As a result of a particularly hot summer in London in 1858, when the smell of rotting sewage made living in the city completely unbearable, Parliament commissioned the construction of the London sewer, which was finished in 1865. Deaths resulting from waterborne diseases plummeted, and cities all over the world followed suit and constructed their own sanitary sewers. In 1848, the British government also decreed that private homes should have their own toilets. By the end of the 1850s, most middle-class homes in British cities had water closets.

Thomas Crapper (yes, his real name) ran a plumbing company in the late 19th century. Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the flush toilet; he made some changes to the toilet design patented by Harrington. In fact, Smithsonian says that Crapper's greatest invention was the creation of the bathroom fittings showroom at a time when toilets were seldom displayed. Crapper made sure his name was visible on all his products — which eventually became standard in houses in wealthy countries all over the world. He also patented the floating ballcock inside water tanks and the U-bend plumbing trap, an improvement over the earlier S-bend, as it didn't jam.

Modern flush toilets became more widespread in developed countries at the turn of the 20th century with flushable valves and tanks on top of toilet bowls. Toilet paper appeared on store shelves around 1902.


The Future of the Flush Toilet

modern flush toilet
This modern flush toilet has a sleek design. Many modern toilets are self-flushing, have seats that can warm, or can do double duty as bidets. Rachel Moon/Shutterstock

"Toilets offer a relatively unexplored territory that offers significant potential in respect to healthy living and healthy aging," says McDonagh. "As individuals are taking more responsibility for their health, eating habits and wellbeing, the bathroom offers a somewhat blank canvass for us to integrate intuitive technology to support the individual. Imagine a toilet that could tell you how hydrated you were, whether you were deficient in particular vitamins, warn you of blood in your stools and changes in your hormones. We literally flush all that information away each day in the form of waste matter."

So, we could find out a lot about our own health from our toilets, but according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which launched their "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge" back in 2011, the next generation of toilets will also be able to kill pathogens, compost human waste and keep up with the fast urbanization of the 21st century, and do it without sanitary plumbing, sewer infrastructure or a water source. They might even be able to mine our waste for valuable elements like phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium and separate solid and liquid waste in order to use them to make things like building supplies.


But will the new toilets look very much different from the one in your bathroom now, or the one Sir John Harrington made for Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century?

Probably not much, unless you've got any bright ideas. The Gates Foundation does say that the Toilet Challenge (which still goes on) "has resulted in more than 25 breakthrough processing components and technologies that are available for commercialization by product and sanitation service companies."