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Who Invented the Flush Toilet?

Thomas Crapper

Have you ever heard that flush toilets were invented by a plumber called Thomas Crapper, who was from England (far away from Salt Lake City, Utah!)?

The answer is likely yes.

However, Thomas Crapper didn’t actually invent the flush toilet. In fact, flushing toilets are ancient technology. Archaeological evidence shows that primitive toilets using river water to flush waste away existed over 5,000 years ago, in around 3,000 BC.

That said, the toilets from 3,000 BC are a far cry from the toilets we know today.

It’s hard to say exactly who invented the modern-day flushing toilet, as dozens of inventors were involved in its development over the years. The two inventors who have the best claim were actually born hundreds of years before Crapper. Among his many other achievements, prolific Arabic inventor and engineer, Al-Jazari, developed a flushing hand-washing device in 1206, while English writer and courtier Sir John Harington (1561–1612) described a method for flushing a toilet in 1596 in his article A New Discourse of a Stale Subject.

Search the US Patent and Trademark Office, and you’ll find hundreds of invention reports that relate to toilets and their flushing mechanisms. Here are two examples from 1874:

  •  On the left (and drawn in plan view, from above) is the self-disinfecting water-closet basin developed by Jabez Burns, Charles Higgins, and William Higgins (“Improvement in Water-Closet Basins”, US Patent #149,195). Their simple innovation was to make the pipe that fills the toilet basin squirt sideways over a bar of soap, thus disinfecting the basin and preventing foul smells.
  • On the right, you can see Archibald McGilchrist’s trap-less water closet (“Improvement in Water-Closet Apparatus”, US Patent #157,211). Unlike with an S-bend closet, there is no water trap to stop odors. Instead, the flush mechanism raises and lowers a ball-shaped valve that seals the waste pipe. A rising and falling float (green) operates a valve mechanism (yellow) to refill the basin in the usual way. You can explore about 13,000 other similar inventions by searching for “water closet” on Google Patents.
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