Myth Busted: Sir Thomas Crapper Invented the Flush Toilet

Another chunk of pop trivia down the drain

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Claim: The modern flush toilet was invented by a 19th-century British plumber named Sir Thomas Crapper.

Status: False

Analysis: Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) did exist, and was a plumber, and is, in fact, credited with improving the functionality of the early flush toilet (or "privy," or "water closet," as it was then called). But he did not, contrary to popular lore, invent the pseudo-eponymous bathroom appliance from scratch.

Credit for inventing the toilet goes to 16th-century courtier Sir John Harington, who not only came up with the idea but installed an early working prototype in the palace of Queen Elizabeth I, his godmother. Harington, a noted wit, entitled his description of the device "A New Discourse of a Stale Subject."

It consisted of a large pan ("stools pot") with a seat, the contents of which could be flushed out, down a pipe and into a cesspool below with water from a cistern or holding tank above. Except for the turning of a handle to initiate the flush, gravity did all the work.

"If water be plenty, the oftener it is used and opened, the sweeter," Harington wrote of his contraption, "but if it be scant, once a day is enough, for a need, though twenty persons should use it.... And this being well done, and orderly kept, your worst privy may be as sweet as your best chamber."

The first patent for a flushing water closet was issued to watchmaker and inventor Alexander Cumming in 1775, sixty years before Thomas Crapper was born.

But Crapper was in the right place at the right time and knew an opportunity when he saw one.

A plumber at 14

The son of a Yorkshire steamboat captain, young Tom Crapper's destiny was set when he was apprenticed to a master plumber in Chelsea, London at the age of 14. By the time he was 25, he owned his own plumbing shop.

Clearly an industrious sort, Crapper was awarded nine patents for plumbing innovations during his lifetime, three of them consisting of improvements to the flushing water closet, or toilet, as it came to be known.

Though he made his name as a sanitary engineer to blue bloods — his company supplied plumbing fixtures to Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, among other royal estates — Crapper himself was lowborn and never knighted, so it's a mystery why storytellers insist on awarding him the title "Sir."

Compounding the error, he is sometimes referred to as "Sir John Crapper."

Thomas Crapper died in London on Jan. 27, 1910, at the age of 74. His company, Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd., still exists to this day in Stratford on Avon, England.