If you have a sense of potty humor, you may have come across the legend of English plumber Thomas Crapper, the man who supposedly invented the toilet. After he created the latrine as we know it, the story goes, his name became synonymous with using it.
But in reality, rudimentary toilets predate Crapper by several thousand years, and even modern flush toilets predate this history by several centuries. So who actually invented the toilet?
The earliest known toilets date back around 5,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. These simple pit-style pots were lined with a series of long, ceramic tubes that prevented the solid contents from leaching into the surrounding soil, while liquids slowly seeped out through small holes, Nature magazine (opens in a new tab) reported. Unfortunately, the names of whoever designed them are lost to history.
More complex toilets first appeared almost a millennium later, in the ancient Minoan civilization on the island of Crete (later acquired by Mycenaean Greeks). These public commodes show the first evidence of water being used to carry away waste, a practice later picked up by the Romans. Although Novel latrines were quite similar to their Greek predecessors, with rows of bench seats with holes placed over a sewer, “they had a sophisticated innovation, and there was centralized plumbing.” Christoph Lüthi (opens in a new tab), a sanitation and infrastructure planner at the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology, told LiveScience. This meant that instead of each individual washing away their waste with a nearby ceramic pot filled with water, all unwanted material was taken to a centralized sewer of slow-moving water, where the waste was washed into the same river or stream.
The first modern flush toilet was developed in 1596 by the Englishman Sir John Harington, a courtier to Queen Elizabeth I. “Until then, it was all about pits,” said Lüthi. Harington had a model of his “Ajax” toilet (the name was a pun on a “jakes”, which was slang for “toilet”) installed in his own home and later in Richmond Palace, a royal riverside residence in England. It reportedly took 7.5 gallons (28 liters) of water to flush, and notoriously lacked an S-bend, which meant odors could flow back into the room unmuffled. It is perhaps not surprising that Ajax never really captured the public.
Related: What did people use before toilet paper was invented?
In 1775, Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming (sometimes spelled Cummings) filed the first flush toilet patent. His design included an S-bend and a more sophisticated valve system, similar to today’s toilets.
Our old friend Thomas Crapper did not enter the plumbing community until the 1860s. Between 1881 and 1896, Crapper took out nine plumbing patents, according to a recent article in Inventor’s Digest (opens in a new tab), but no one was in favor of a revolutionary new toilet; rather, they were simple pipe improvements. The word “crap” isn’t even derived from his name; it most likely comes from medieval Latin crap, meaning “chaff”. However, his toilet equipment, which prominently had “CRAPPER” printed on the side, may have inspired the American slang for “toilet” in the early 1900s.
Now, Lüthi and his colleagues aim to design the toilet of the future: an ultra-efficient and sanitary device that works with “no external power source, no external piping and no plumbing that connects to any kind of grid,” he said. Their Blue lead (opens in a new tab) the prototype continuously cleans and recycles water, while faeces are converted into fertiliser. They hope to one day install this device in developing countries as a simple, environmentally friendly way to improve sanitation and, by extension, save lives.