The History Of Plumbing And Water: A Long Form Read
Living in the modern age means many things.
But, one of the things that modern living tends to do is to make all of the things which are essential to our lives into things we don’t really think too much about. One of the biggest and most important of these is our relationship to water, and how we gain access to it. We have a unique history with water, and the systems we’ve developed to manage it. In actuality, it is one of the reasons we’re still around today. So, where did our relationship with water systems start, and where is it going in the 21st century?
Creatures of water
We are creatures of water of course. Water literally defines us, our bodies being comprised of about 60% of the stuff. That means of course that our relationship with water has had a lot to do with how easy it’s been to get to it, and to move it around our built environments. In many parts of the world today, shamefully for us as a species, this is still an enduring problem that’s still at square one in the developing world. But, history has shown that with this need to be near water for many reasons – for drinking, for washing, for transportation – we as a collection of people and later of civilizations have innovated around the problem. What is that innovation? Well, it’s plumbing! That, and other innovations that relate to it.
You see? Plumbing. There’s nothing cool about plumbing, right? Modern living has made us forget all about how important it is as a delivery method for water, and an exit strategy for, well, what happens after we drink and eat , if you know what I mean. In this, we’re creatures of water in more than one sense. So, why was the invention of plumbing, which is really about moving water to and fro at our convenience, so necessary?
So near, so far
For a long time, and still in place today in many regions of the world, water was obtained based on how much could be carried from the nearest well, or body of fresh water, such as those rivers and fresh water lakes where we naturally built our homes.
But, that’s a lot of work, particularly as water becomes such an integral part of the building process, as well as a means of not dying of thirst. So, what could be done to solve this problem of proximity in relation to where we build our homes and where the closest water source happens to be?
Bringing the water to us – and away from us, too!
In the end, civilization had to solve the problem of bringing water to where the people lived. And it had to solve the problem of sanitation, too. Even in the earliest years of civilization in the Near-East and the Far-East, people were beginning to gather in cities. We are not only creatures of water, we’re also creatures of community. That’s how we’ve managed to survive without having claws, wings, fins, and without being all that fast or comparatively strong as individuals. We needed density to get by.
But density can be messy!
So, another goal when it’s come to living together in one more densely populated place as civilization took root has been in reducing that mess, and carrying refuse away. The results of that have varied and evolved over the millennia, and differed from culture to culture, too in the matter of approach.
Once again, this is still true today. There are still many places in the world that do not have the technology or infrastructure to do this efficiently, which has all kinds of negative effects on populations from dehydration, to the spread of disease, and to starvation as contaminated water begins to affect the quality and nutritional value of crops. Needless to say, technology for moving water, aka “plumbing”, is an essential to human life. But, where did it start?
Ancient technology for moving water
Early humanity knew the score when it came to water because it was such an immediate issue. We had to stay together in larger groups to stay safe. We had to have water to drink, and when we eventually stopped hunting and gathering, to grow things. We also eventually needed to move goods and people around our living spaces which would grow into cities. This was the starting point, and remains to be today, despite how far technology has come. Moving water from place to place has been essential to our survival and remains so today.
Since the earliest days of civilization, the means to do this have varied and evolved, as well as growing up in parallel. Once again, it’s important to remember that history and technology are rarely linear, strictly speaking. Some technology was used for hundreds of years, and then lost, and we had to fight to get it back again. Some ancient technology for plumbing and for water access is still used today, of course. To this last point, it depends where it is you’re living. But in the light that, here are some of the major milestones in how humankind has accessed water over thousands of years.
This one is a classic example of a means to access water that is still in practice today; the rain. I mean, that how a lot of species get their water. In the earliest years of humankind, we did it using ceramics and animal skins, simply laying them out and waiting for the rain. Sometimes the simplest solution is best, and it’s becoming a renewed practice today, using water barrels and downspouts to collect rainwater for our gardens.
But, rainwater collection depends on climate and season. When it comes to civilization, which among other things meant pitching our tents and staying in one place, that wasn’t always the most effective means of accessing water. We needed a water collection solution that was more permanent.
The first step in seeing to these mandates of survival beyond simple rainwater collection was the digging of wells. The discovery of digging for water, such a given now, were completely revolutionary to being able to live away from riversides, where competition for water among sometimes dangerous animals was a higher risk than when access to water was more accessible nearer to more easily defended homes and communities.
Access to underground aquifers is particularly true in desert regions where many desert peoples counted on wells to survive in very harsh, dehydrating environments. This technology is also still in effect today, with more elaborate means of digging and lining a well. But, the principles are the same.
The crafting of water-tight vessels in which to carry the water also became essential to this, of course. The materials used to make them ranged from animal skins, to ceramic pots, to wooden buckets. But, as populations expanded, so did the expanse of ground to cover getting a household’s water from the well to the home, still trying to avoid danger and exposure to the elements while doing it. So, the problem of moving water from point A to B to C was addressed. But, it stood to be improved, too.
Waterways and cities
When you’re going to set up a city, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got direct access to a lot of water. You don’t need a city planning certificate to know that. Humanity has always relied on water as a lifeline. The reason that cities rose up as high density places near waterways for people to gather in relative safety, and where empires would eventually flourish were the same in 5000 BC as they are today. Even in the Bible, The Tigris and the Euphrates are specifically mentioned by name in the Book of Genesis, the virtual symbols of the lifeblood of western civilization, and known as the Fertile Crescent. The location of the Garden of Eden is believed by many to be somewhere in the Tigris and Euphrates delta, apparently.
Speaking of rivers, you’ll notice that every major city that’s over a couple of hundred years old and many that are much newer is always well positioned next to a river; the Thames, The Seine, The Danube, The Hudson, The Tiber, The Nile, and on and on. As humanity grew, not all of us could fit together, all crowded along rivers and around lakes. As empires expanded, so did populations, and some of those in pretty arid regions of the world, too.
So, with the formation of empires, connecting many cities together, this idea of moving water back and forth becomes even more involved, requiring more elaborate technology and infrastructure. The problem was this: to find some way of getting water to populations further and further away from riversides and by lakes. New technologies were needed! To the immortal question of “what have the Romans ever done for us?”, the aqueduct and sanitation are the first two items on the list. These innovations are the beginnings of modern plumbing and sewer systems, even if they were relatively low-tech solutions when compared to today in the developed world.
The invention of the aqueduct saw to the problem of delivering water over great distances, and in areas where water was often pretty hard to come by. The way the aqueduct worked was by way of innovative engineering techniques utilizing gravity. The structure of the aqueduct was like that of a arched bridge, carrying clean water into a city for drinking water, urban farming, decorative fountains and water features, for baths, and for grey water and sewage away from the city, too. This was accomplished by way of a series of siphons and pipes that were installed both above ground and underground.
By the third century A.D, multiple aqueducts sustained cities where millions of people thrived with access to fresh water, and without having to live in their own filth, an added bonus for sure. The design of aqueducts and their use was a stalwart in many cultures, lasting for hundreds of years, some of which are still in operation today. It made the moving of water into one of the defining characteristics of living in cities from then until now. Of course, when it comes to sanitation there would be a few bumps in the road, and with some vital knowledge lost that would make city living more dangerous in the coming centuries.
One of the main reasons why going back in time for hundreds of years in a time machine is less than a romantic idea for some is just this: “Sure, the clothes were great, and everyone spoke in sonnet form, or whatever. But, what happens when you’ve got to go?”
It’s a compelling thing to think about, would-be time travellers and sonnet fans!
And more importantly, it’s another example of our modern life in the developed world making the most essential things to our health and well-being into those things which we take for granted the most. I’m talking about indoor plumbing and flush toilets, folks. To the urban and suburban person, it’s hard to imagine life without them. But, our span of time when these things are everyday items in the household is a fairly short one.
After humanity had spent centuries finding a designated spot in the open to “go”, a more conventional solution to answering the call of the wild while living in cities must have seemed like a major breakthrough. What a relief to unburden ourselves from such a heavy load (Sorry – I will try to be more mature about this from now on. Maybe).
Toilets in medieval castles
Technology and design is rarely distributed evenly. Even as early as the 11th century, the upper tiers of society had bathrooms, sort of. They even had, well, premium seating. This didn’t include a connection to a sewage system of course. Civilization had lost that technology, and would have to scrabble for it in the coming centuries.
But, in medieval castles of the period, toilets and the passages and pits needed for them were built into the very architecture, called “garderrobes”, which were little closets that appeared on the outside like little abutments with a bay at the bottom.
You’d just find one, sit down, and let nature take its course. The ancient Romans had a similar system, although refuse in that case was carried away by the aqueduct. In the medieval period, most the work when it came to “doing one’s business” would have been accomplished by way of gravity, though.
And there was still the business of removal to consider. Some castles and monasteries had these – but not all. Most of this involved, once again, dumping the refuse untreated into a moat, pit, or nearby river.
So even if the model for the toilet and for a connected sewage system was established pretty early on, there was a ways to go before it would resemble toilets and sewage systems we’ve got today in the developed world. More on that later on. But in the meantime, it’s important to remember that not everyone had a castle to begin with, let alone an early form of a water closet. So, what about them?
It’s potty time
The chamber pot traded on a couple of basic things that made it a godsend to the civilized world. For one thing, it allowed one not to have to go very far to do one’s “duty”. And for another thing in the smaller villages, it cut down on the dangers of travel, sometimes by night, away from the safety of one’s home. Chamber pots were the height of convenience, right under the bed or in a cupboard. They were made of ceramic and with a shape that allowed one to do what the modern toilet does today. In some cultures, the pot was closed, but for the opening where you would, well, you know. The only issue with it was what do with it once it was, well, full.
For this, there were some very lucky people who would collect the “night soil” (even in ancient times, there was a polite word for everything), and cart it out of the city and into the country where it would be used for fertilizer. Sometimes, like today, people got lazy and dumped it outside, wherever, including in the street, or (horribly) into the rivers that also fed the city’s water supply in the days well before any sort of purification process. In medieval Europe, it was dumped in a cess pit in the gardens of houses. This practice lasted an unbelievably long time. At that time of course, microbiology wasn’t really a thing until the 1660s, with the invention of the microscope.
This lack of knowledge about sanitary practices led to a number of health issues, among them being dysentery, and cholera. Millions and millions of people would die from this in the medieval period in Europe, something that the Romans, and the Greeks, and The Babylonians had found a way to avoid through their early sewers. Once again; sometimes we as a species don’t always learn from history. But as innovative as they were, those civilizations had issues of their own when it came to plumbing.
Early sewer systems and pipes
As talked about when aqueducts were mentioned, the earliest civilizations figured out all of the problems that had to do with large populations needing access to fresh water. And they figured out that moving refuse out of the city by the same token was equally important. They knew that “bad water” caused disease and death, even if they didn’t know the exact reason why. But, here’s something they didn’t know either; that lead in water is bad, too.
Many of the pipes used in the Roman aqueducts were lined with lead. This of course led to all kinds of health issues as well, just as it does today. These include many behavioral symptoms like irritability, nervousness, and sleep disorders which in turn cause a whole new bunch of symptoms, including psychosis. It may explain a lot when you read the biographies of Roman emperors, like Caligula let’s say (not a well-adjusted guy). Unfortunately, even if a lot of the most innovative technology was lost to the world when the Roman Empire fell, a lot of the less useful aspects of it was preserved, like the use of lead in plumbing systems, including in pipes and in water holding tanks.
So, even if we had solved some of the problems of moving water within our cities, we’d lost a lot of knowledge about it too over the ages. And we still had problems that we didn’t know the answers to, and often had problems that we didn’t even know we had when it came to clean water and our health. So, what was there to do? Well, the answer is one that we turn to even today; science, and innovation.
From outside in: modern plumbing
For many, many years, going to the bathroom for nearly everyone involved a hand-held light source of some kind and a pair of shoes. My own family living in post-war Britain in the early 1950s had no inside toilet. They went to “the lav”, as they called it, or an outhouse. This is true in North America as well, particularly in rural settings. But, despite the uneven distribution of the technology, an inside toilet connected to a pipe that was in turn connected to a robust sewer system was not only a matter of convenience. It was a matter of life and death.
In urban settings in the 19th century and even into early 20th century depending on your financial status, living in a city like New York was often the reason for a short life span. This is for all of the reasons we’ve talked about; bad water, lack of sewage treatment, and heavy metal poisoning due to lead pipes. What was needed was an efficient and convenient way to eliminate the problem of, well, elimination. And it also meant carrying fresh water into homes efficiently, and safely.
All down (to) the Crapper
The first flush toilet was developed in the 1500s by John Harrington, but really only came to modern use in the mid-to-late 1800s. And yes, it’s true. The man who innovated and popularized the use of the flush toilet around that time was indeed Thomas Crapper. I will give you a minute to have a giggle before moving on (and myself one, too). But, just quickly, the word “crap” has nothing to do with Mr. Crapper. That’s just a coincidence. Like most rude words in our culture, the word “crap” comes from the medieval period.
For more hilarity, Crapper’s main innovation was around siphoning techniques that included the floating “ballcock” on which he had a patent. He and his nephew George perfected this technology at the tail end of the 19th century, and in 1904, Thomas retired, giving the company to George who developed the patents and the products into those we know today. The flush toilet would take some time to become a household item. But when it did, it revolutionized what life at home was like. Along with a number of other innovations, like efficient sewers, modern water treatment techniques, and clean tap water, the flush toilet helped to reduce disease and the problem of short lifespans in cities, too.
Plus, having a flush toilet is less icky, too. Let’s face it. Thanks, Mr. Crapper. No giggling in the back!
Tap water: unsung hero
Tap water, it seems to me has taken some hard knocks. It took some time to develop a trust in tap water, from early decontamination strategies involving chlorine, to ozone, to fluoridation, and all in reaction to an increasingly industrialized economy, which largely works against clean water. Major developments in clean tap water occurred during the early to mid 20th century, and in varying degrees depending on where you lived. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 in the United States made the standards for drinking water apply on a Federal level.
By now, we don’t think twice about just turning a tap on and seeing drinkable water flow out of it – at least not in the developed world. Tap water is a miracle! It is the modern and living symbol of everything humanity has sought to achieve around safe access to clean water. In spite of the, to me, totally kooky trends of designer water, and branded bottled water, tap water is one of the things which has defined modern life in the developed world to the point where it is so essential that it is usually totally invisible to us on a daily basis.
But, a lot of work has gone into perfecting it so that we have the luxury of taking it for granted. Better designed pipes created with a better knowledge about metal contamination behind them, and of course modern water collection and treatment processes all have intricate histories of their own that have made this possible. This has all been thousands of years in the making!
But, as far as modern plumbing goes, what’s next?
Plumbing and Water In the 21st Century
One of the key differences between populations now and populations in the ancient world and through history is that we have access to an incredible database of knowledge on every subject at the touch of our fingertips. If tap water, and efficient sewage systems seem like miracles, than so does the Internet, right? But, what does this have to do with water, and with the systems we’ve put in place to move it around our cities?
For one, we are re-discovering some of those very same techniques to access water safely. We city and suburb dwellers are using rainbarrels and other rain harvesting systems, after reading about them on water conservation websites. Maybe we don’t drink that water, but we’re learning how to use it to keep our gardens growing so that we’re not drawing on the managed water supply.
We’re also learning about how to conserve water in simple ways. Some of this is by new plumbing technology that we’ve read about, like low-flow toilets, systems that re-use our household’s greywater (like dishwater, laundry water, bath water, etc), and even by faucets that don’t allow us to run the water unless we’re actually using it. That’s technology hard at work, along with our awareness of why that technology exists.
But, our access to this knowledge helps us to remember our roots, too; that fresh water is not a luxury, and access to it will always be an ongoing issue.
The future of water
Humanity needs fresh water. Without it, we’re hooped.
This need for fresh water is why when we began to gather in large groups thousands of years ago to build civilizations, we did so with the problem of water at the heart of our efforts. I will go so far as to say that without water and a safe means to move it around our cities by using technology, civilization would not have been possible. And maybe none of us would be here today.
Plumbing saved our lives!
But, even in today’s developed world, with our miraculous tap water and flushing toilets, access to fresh water is not being looked upon as a sure thing anymore. We are thinking about the future, with a changing climate that is making the world a warmer place to live, with less steady rainfall and more torrential rains that make water purification and harvesting more difficult. We’re also looking at dwindling supplies of potable water, not just in areas like the growing Sahara desert, but in highly populated urban areas at home, like Southern California.
That’s pretty scary. There’s not much a fancy plumbing system is good for when there is no water.
The next stage
So perhaps the next stage in the history of plumbing will have to do with making better use of our water, with the kinds of rainharvesting and greywater recycling systems we read about in environmental sites and print articles becoming standard features in the average home. This problem of water and of moving water efficiently has been with us since we began.
It makes sense that our relationship to clean water, and the ability to move it, is a continuing story as humanity embarks on its journey into the rest of the 21st Century.
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Links to resources relevant to water issues
The subject of water continues to be an important issue for every living person. To find out more about water and the forces which affect it, take a look at these links:
Additional Sources and links: