Plumbing is an integral – and often underrated! – part of our daily lives, giving us clean water for drinking, bathing, and waste removal. Ever wonder who “invented” it? Below is a rundown of significant timestamps in the development of our modern day plumbing system.
While its early beginnings are certainly nothing like what we have today, plumbing can be traced back as early as 2600 BC, when the Indus Valley Civilization in Southeast Asia built the first documented system of pipes carrying water from one place to another. This system included wells, floor drains, and even septic tanks! It is also widely accepted that the Egyptians began using copper pipes for sewage and water supply around this same time.
By 2000 BC, China had developed a pipeline using hollow bamboo reeds to transport fresh water and natural gas.
Late Bronze Age Advancements
Around 1500 BC, bathrooms with hot and cold running water could be found on the island of Crete, in the palace of the Minoan King. The bathrooms also featured ceramic bathtubs and a toilet with a drainage system.
During this era, the Egyptians also created the first copper plumbing pipes. It would take nearly 3,500 years – the early 1940’s – for copper to become the most used material for plumbing in the developed world.
Innovations in Rome
In the first century BC (100 BC), the Romans were the first to use lead pipes to bring water from the mountains into private homes – more specifically, the private homes of aristocrats.
Around this time, public bathhouses also began to pop up, featuring elaborate steam rooms and wastewater systems. Many of these bathhouses are still in use today!
While many civilizations can claim that they invented our modern system of plumbing, the word itself comes from the Latin word “plumbum,” which means “lead,” a nod to the lead pipe systems developed by the Romans.
The Plumbing Renaissance (and Birth of the Toilet)
The Renaissance was a time of rebirth, bringing forth a revival of learning and wisdom. During this era, there were great advancements in almost every area of life, and plumbing was no exception. This is due to renewed interest in hygiene and public health, leading to several advancements in water and sewage systems.
Perhaps one of the biggest advancements for plumbing was the invention of the flushing toilet by Sir John Harington in 1596. (Fun fact: Ever wonder why a toilet is called “The John”? Now you know!) He gifted it to his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I.
Harington’s toilet had a 2-foot-deep oval bowl, fed by water from an upstairs cistern. It did require 7.5 gallons of water to flush it though, which could be an issue when water was scarce!
The Advent of the Modern Shower
The concept of showering has been around since the beginning of time – well, as far as we know! – using outdoor waterfalls and buckets of water. In 1767, the first patent for a mechanized shower was granted to William Feetham, a London stove maker. His shower design was powered by a hand pump, using much less water than a bath.
In 1810, an anonymous entrepreneur invented the English Regency Shower, which pumped water continuously from a lower basin to a cistern directly above the bathers head. It should be noted that they were being “cleaned” by the same water than they had previously rinsed in.
By 1850, advancements in plumbing allowed bathers to not have to rinse off in the same wastewater.
Still, showers were considered a novelty, and only used by the elite. The use of showers would not become mainstream until the 1930’s.
Municipal Water Supplies
The early priority for the development of water systems in American cities was firefighting. In 1795, wooden pipelines were built in New York City to carry water for firemen through hollow logs of wood. When needed, they would have to drill through the pipes, and plug the hole when they were finished.
By 1815, the City of Philadelphia was among the first to create a government-issued safe water supply for its residents, powered by steam turbines to draw water from the Schuylkill River.
It wasn’t until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that other cities followed suit, mostly in response to rapid population growth. When shallow wells and small reservoirs became inadequate for serving their residents, US cities began to plan for safe water supply (and sewage!) systems.
The Iron Age of Plumbing
The increase in modern municipal plumbing systems in the late 1800’s created better living conditions in cities, helping to ward off the spread of common diseases at the time, including cholera. Also during this time, cast iron pipes slowly began to replace lead as the standard for pipes in water distribution systems. While cast iron is rarely used in new construction homes these days, many homes built in the earlier part of the 1900’s may still feature cast iron pipes.
Around 1980, builders and plumbers began replacing cast iron with PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride Plastic). It has a number of advantages, including being easier to make, more durable than other options, and much less expensive than cast iron and other materials.
The Digital Age of Plumbing
Much like with every other area of our lives, plumbing has seen a number of digital advancements. Many homeowners now use “smart plumbing systems”, allowing them to monitor water usage, detect leaks, and control fixtures remotely through an app on their smartphone. In addition to the convenience these systems provide, they are also helping homeowners conserve water and increase efficiency.
Plumbing has certainly come a long way since the early days of the Romans and Egyptians. The ingenuity and efforts of our predecessors have vastly improved public health, and most certainly, our quality of life! We have no doubt that we’ll see many more innovations in plumbing in our lifetime!