Who Invented the Toilet?

There's a reason why call it "the John."

Toilet. Chance Agrella/Freerange

For civilization to come together and function, you’d think people would need toilets. But ancient records that date back to around 2800 BC have shown that the earliest toilets were a luxury afforded only to the most affluent households in what was then the Indus Valley settlement of Mohenjo-daro. 

The thrones were simple but ingenious for its time. Made of brick with wooden seats, they featured chutes that transported the waste toward street drains. This was all made possible by the most advanced sewage system of the time, which featured several sophisticated water supply and sanitation technologies. For example, drains from houses were connected to larger public drains and sewage from a home was connected to main sewage line.  

Toilets that used running water to dispose of waste have also been discovered in Scotland that date back to roughly the same time. There’s also evidence of early toilets in Crete, Egypt and Persia that were in use during the 18th century BC. Toilets connected to a flush system were popular as well in Roman bath houses, where they were positioned over open sewers. 

In the middle ages, some households fashioned what was referred to as garderobes, basically a hole on the floor above a pipe that carried the waste out to disposal area called a cesspit. To get rid of the waste, workers came during the night to clean them out, collect the waste and then sell it as fertilizer. 

In the 1800’s, some English homes favored using a waterless, non-flush system called the “dry earth closet.” Invented in 1859 by the Reverend Henry Moule of Fordington, the mechanical units, comprised of a wooden seat, a bucket and separate container, mixed dry earth with feces to produce compost that can be safely returned to soil. You can say it was one of the first composting toilets that are in use today at parks and other roadside locations in Sweden, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Finland. 

The first design for the modern flush toilet was drawn up in 1596 by Sir John Harington, an english courtier. Named the Ajax, Harington described the device in a satirical pamphlet titled “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax,” which contained insulting allegories to Earl of Leicester, a close friend of his godmother Queen Elizabeth I. It had a valve that let water flow down and empty a waterproof bowl. He would eventually install a working model at his home in Kelston and for the queen at Richmond Palace. 

However, it wasn’t until 1775 that the first patent for a practical flush toilet was issued. Inventor Alexander Cumming’s designed featured one important modification called the S-trap, a S-chaped pipe below the bowl filled with water that formed a seal to prevent fold smelling odors from rising up through the top. A few years later, Cumming’s system was improved upon by inventor Joseph Bramah, who replaced the sliding valve at the bottom of the bowl with a hinged flap. 

It was around the middle of the 19th century that “water closets,” as they were called, started to gain a foothold among the masses. In 1851, an english Plumber named George Jennings installed the first public pay toilets at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park. At the time, it cost patrons a penny to use them and included extras such as a towel, comb and shoe shine. By the end of 1850’s, most middle class homes in Britain came equipped with a toilet. 

Bonus: Toilet Nicknames  

Toilets are sometimes referred to as “the crapper.” This is attributed to a Sir Thomas Crapper, a plumber who’s company Thomas Crapper and Co. manufactured and sold a popular line of toilets in the late 1800’s. Members of royal family, which included Prince Edward and George V outfitted their residences with Crapper’s sanitation systems. His name would become synonymous with toilet after American soldiers who arrived during WWI started to use it as a reference to commodes once they returned to the states. 

And while no one can say for sure how toilets came to be called “the John,” some would like to think of it as an homage to the inventor, John Harington. Others, though say its more likely a variation of Jake, derived from Ajax.