Toilets: The Past and Future of the Flush


The toilet is a necessary convenience that we use without much thought. But technological innovations may revolutionize the way we think about and use the porcelain throne. Johnnie Pakington/Getty Images

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? The truth is, you probably don't really want to think about it, and neither does anybody else, which is why the flush 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 commode designed for Queen Elizabeth I by her godson Sir John Harrington in 1592 — his 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."

Some History

But going to the bathroom isn't something we've always been squeamish about. Long ago, 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 BCE, 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.

Later, in Medieval England, you could be walking down the street and someone might throw the contents of their chamber pot out the window on you. "Oops," they might say. "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 five. 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. The toilet patented by Cumming — and slight variations patented by others like Thomas Crapper (yes, his real name), whose contributions to the overall design of the toilet were minimal, but whose legacy endures because he made sure his name was visible on all his products — eventually became standard in houses in wealthy countries all over the world. And it's great that babies aren't dying due to poor sanitation in these places anymore, but the toilet is due for an upgrade, honestly.

The Future of the Flush

But what do we need our new toilets to do?

"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 sewer infrastructure, electricity 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?