The History of Plumbing Technology Throughout the Centuries

In present times most residents of the United Kingdom take properly working plumbing systems for granted. Most do not take the time to think about the history of plumbing or the way plumbing technology has evolved over time. Plumbing has a long and interesting history: a history that is worth exploring.

Plumbing first made its way into urban communities while the Romans and the Greeks were the powerful empires of the world. Plumbing was used by the Romans and Greeks for the public bathing houses that were so popular. Aqueducts came into fashion while the Romans were in power and they were used to carry clean water to the bathing houses and take the dirty water away. The Roman aqueduct system was used until the 1800s when advances in technology started a replacement process of the aqueducts by piping systems located underground.

In ancient times, the pipes were constructed mostly of lead while the aqueducts were constructed of clay or stone. This is a stark contrast to the plumbing materials used today. In present times copper, brass, steel or even plastic are the most popular construction materials for pipes and plumbing systems. Lead has been discontinued permanently because it has a high toxicity level.

The bath houses that the Romans enjoyed are considered the predecessors of plumbing as it currently exists. Originally, public bathing only occurred while the sun was up because the bath water was only replaced once each day. Remember, it was not until long after the Roman Empire fell that bacterium was discovered and the western world learned how diseases were spread with the obvious implications on bathing and personal hygiene. In Roman times, one water change each day was all they thought they needed.

Perhaps more important than the public baths and aqueducts, though, is the evolution of the modern toilet. The toilet that is so familiar to the modern western world was first invented around 2800 BC in Mohenjo-Darco and was made from a seat placed upon a pile of bricks. In those times only the highest class of society was allowed to use the toilet. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the western world adopted the sit-down toilet that was popular with the ancient Romans.

As the western world adopted the plumbing and toilet structures that were invented in Roman times the technology surrounding the systems exploded in volume and size. In less than one hundred years the western world helped toilets and plumbing fixtures advance from aqueducts and sit down holes to the sophisticated and technically complex modern marvels that western people now take for granted.

Today plumbing technology places pipes underground and the open sewage drains and cesspools associated with the aqueducts are mostly gone. Plumbing technology, along with the other marvels of the modern world, continues to increase in cleanliness and efficiency.

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World Toilet Day, November 19, 2008

 On November 19, 2008 was World Toilet Day, a day on which the world was reminded that more than 2.6 billion people (including 980 million children) – over 40% of the world’s population – still have no access to basic sanitation. Of these, more than 1 billion live without access to any kind of toilet at all and are forced to defecate in the open. Basic sanitation is something that we often take for granted in developed countries.

Lack of sanitation is one of the main causes of sickness, disease and infant death in developing countries. Around 4,000 people, mostly children, die every day as a result of diarrhea-related illnesses, caused in part by unsafe water and a lack of access to basic sanitation facilities. The World Health Organisation estimates that improved sanitation reduces diarrhea morbidity by 32%.

When the London-based journalist Rose George wrote a book on human waste, toilets and the world sanitation crisis, she knew that she’d be the butt of a few jokes around the pub. What she didn’t realize — at least not fully — was just how important her subject was. George’s new book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters delves into the taboo subject of bowel evacuation, with tact, sensitivity — and the right amount of style. Reporting on the sewers of London and the slums of New Delhi and the high-tech toilets of Tokyo, George comes to understand that sanitation is no laughing matter — it’s the difference between life and death. “I thought a toilet was my right,” writes George in the book’s introduction. “It was a privilege.”

Toilets are a privilege that nearly half the world lacks. That doesn’t just mean that they don’t have a nice, heated indoor bathroom. It means they have nothing — not a public toilet, not an outhouse, not even a bucket. They defecate in public, contaminating food and drinking water, and the disease toll due to unsanitized human waste is staggering. George notes that 80% of the world’s illnesses are caused by fecal matter: A single gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasitic cysts and 100 worm eggs. According to the estimates of one sanitation specialist George cites, each of the 2.6 billion people who live without sanitation may ingest up to 10 grams of fecal matter a day. The consequence is often diarrhea, which is a mere irritation in the West, but in the developing world a lethal condition that kills 2.2 million people a year — more than AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria.

Jack Sim is the founder of the World Toilet Organization, otherwise known as the other WTO Sim, a retired Singaporean entrepreneur, built the WTO from a group of one — himself — to a sprawling network of 151 organizations in 53 countries. Among his innovations is World Toilet Day, this Nov. 19, which is meant to publicize the plight of billions of people who go without toilets and fight the taboo that nearly all cultures have about business in the bathroom. That quiet embarrassment — similar to the hush around sexual practices that once muffled AIDS activism — keeps sanitation out of the world’s top health priorities, and ensures that even those who go without toilets suffer in silence.

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