What Is Plumbing? A Brief History

Plumbing is a system wherein pipes, fixtures, valves, tanks, and other types of apparatus are used to draw fluids to a certain point. The main purpose of plumbing is to distribute water to a large group of people, even if it means drawing in clean water for members of a single household to consume.

In the following sections, you will be able to learn more about plumbing and its history.

Why Was Plumbing Invented?

The modern world has become so accustomed to plumbing and public water systems, that it can be difficult to imagine a time when the concept of plumbing was first being introduced as something novel.

I simply take the running water in my taps for granted. But imagine, there was a time when whole systems were being put in place so that public baths could have potable water.

Plumbing was invented simply because human beings began discovering the need for potable water. There was also a growing awareness of the need to dispose of wastewater and keep it separate from the water one might consume or drink.

In the following sections, I will provide a brief timeline of some of the key events in the history of plumbing!

Who Discovered Plumbing? – A Timeline

If you thought the magical flushing of your toilet is a modern phenomenon, dive back into your history books as the practice of plumbing dates back at least to ancient history if not to pre-history. For example, evidence of a well has been found in the Jezreel Valley in modern-day Israel, indicating that the site may be home to one of the oldest man-made water systems in the world—dating back to 6500 BCE.

Some historians locate the earliest sophisticated sewage systems to the Indus Valley Civilization dating back to 3000 BCE. The prehistoric city of Mohenjo-Daro had homes that drew water from wells through sunken cylindrical shafts.

There was also a sophisticated system for sending wastewater out into the streets, into covered drains. The Indus Valley Civilization is one of the first signs in the world of an elaborate public drainage system, so there is evidence to suggest plumbing has a very long history.

In the ancient world, one can see evidence of copper pipes in Egypt. Even the Roman Empire famously built aqueducts that carried water from the countryside into the Roman cities.

The Romans are credited with converting some basic plumbing techniques into systems that the world may recognize today as modern plumbing structures. As an aside, an aspect of the Roman Empire’s plumbing history is especially controversial among modern historians—which is whether or not Ancient Romans experienced poisoning because of the rampant use of lead pipes.

The Roman Empire’s lead pipes have also lent themselves to studies of the civilization’s economy at the time as the locations of these pipes have also revealed to historians aspects of urbanization.

The point I am trying to make is that it is difficult to put one’s finger on a single person who invented plumbing. Nor is it something that one should believe is a modern phenomenon. Ancient civilizations have inspired us for how modern plumbing is organized.

The First Flush Toilet

As I have already indicated, ancient civilizations boasted of incredible plumbing and sewage systems. By the time one reaches the 16th century, there is an emergence of fixtures and systems that one may recognize as close to modern-day plumbing.

The first flushing toilet, for instance, was created in 1596 by Queen Elizabeth I’s godson Sir John Harrington. Legend has it that Harington was barred from the royal court for telling explicit stories. He built his own home after being ousted, in which he installed this prototype of a flushing toilet.

Upon forgiving him, the Queen visited him. She was so impressed by Harington’s invention that the latter received an order to build one at Richmond Palace. In Harington’s version, there was an oval bowl that received water from an upstairs cistern.

Though this was not the most practical way to relieve oneself (the toilet required 7.5 gallons of water before indoor plumbing had been discovered), it was still an important design element that contributed to how modern flushing toilets are designed. So, the next time you hear someone use the phrase “I’m on the John!”, you know where that comes from.

New York’s Firefighting Water System

Two centuries later, in 1795, New York City was putting together a water system for firefighting. These were a massive network of wooden pipelines that carried water for firefighting. The system used hollow logs of wood which firemen drilled through so that water could gush out. Once they were done, they would plug the hole back up.

The English Regency Shower

In 1767, William Feetham was credited with creating and patenting the world’s first mechanical shower. Known as the English Regency Shower, this contraption consisted of a large tub in which the bather would stand.

Then, there was an overhead tank into which water was pumped through a hand pump. Once the tank was full, a chain would be pulled, which would release the stream of shower water from the tank. The water would collect in the tub and the whole process could be repeated manually, reusing the water.

However, by this time techniques of heating bathwater had already become common and people were less enthusiastic about reusing soiled water that was also cold! It would be a while before overhead showers become more common.

Plastic Pipes

By the 20th century, the United States was switching from metal pipes to plastic pipes, after witnessing a shortage of metals after the Second World War. In 1955, the first polyvinyl chloride (PVC) water pipes were introduced, laying the foundation for the way public as well as residential water systems are now designed in various parts of the world, but especially in the United States. PVC is a stable and durable material that costs a lot less than metal, making it a suitable material for laying pipework.

How Did Indoor Plumbing Change the World?

It was not until the 19th century that indoor plumbing became more common. Most people’s ablutions were conducted outdoors, frequently in community toilet settings. The correlation between poor sanitation and illness was becoming more apparent by this time.

Boston’s Tremont Hotel became the first hotel to have indoor plumbing. In 1829, eight water closets were installed at the hotel for its guests. Interestingly, it was only a few years later that The White House got indoor plumbing and running water in its primary quarters. Gradually, indoor toilets became a common feature in average homes, not only in wealthy households.

It is indoor plumbing that has allowed homes to have running water, hot or cold. Indoor plumbing has allowed us to have cleaner sanitary practices, so we can flush the toilet after we have used it and maintain hygiene by frequently washing surfaces. Indoor plumbing has also allowed one to draw clean running water into homes, even drinking water into taps!

Without indoor plumbing, one would have to make a trip to a shared toilet outdoors, even if you wanted to use the services at night. Indoor plumbing has changed the world because this is what ensures clean sanitation and a healthy lifestyle. Plumbers are also essential to modern societies for ensuring indoor plumbing stays functioning properly.

Several countries and communities in the world continue to rely upon open sanitation systems and do not have access to clean drinking water, let alone running water.

Final Thoughts

In some ways, human beings have lived with plumbing systems since prehistoric times. Sure, modern plumbing has become extremely sophisticated, but the antecedents for the public water systems and residential plumbing we see today date back millennia!

Within this long history of plumbing, PVC as a material also plays a crucial role. It has made it possible for plumbing systems to be put in place at a far lesser cost than metal pipes.

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