Warning, vulgarism ahead! But first, a few thoughts about inventions.
These thoughts were triggered by Time magazine’s recent listing of the 100 best inventions of 2021. Editors proclaimed them “life-changing” and listed top picks in 27 different categories.
I was most interested in those ideas and products that might indeed make life a little easier. The only one I remember clearly was a pair of hands-free shoes. They are a Nike product, hinged in the middle with a snap putting all in place at a cost of $120 a pair.
My parents used to discuss the inventions that had made the greatest difference in their lives, so I’m accustomed to thinking about such things. Dad vacillated between the airplane and the microchip. Mom, though, was absolutely certain about her choice — deodorant.
Neither of those choices has yet been named as most important in our history. According to the experts, the three leading inventions of all time are Gutenberg’s printing press, Edison’s electric light and Benz’s automobile. Choices vary after that.
Apparently, I take after Mom in this area because indoor plumbing tops my list of “best” inventions. We lived in town when I was growing up, so we had those amenities. Their importance became clear when I went down to the family farm to help with harvest, cleaning or just to visit. The indignities of shared bath water, thunder jugs and the odious outhouse made me appreciate life at home.
Rural water and electric changed all that when I was nine and brought the farm into the modern age. My children and grands know this story. Maybe that’s why they selected a special book for me. The title (and here it comes) is “Did Thomas Crapper Really Invent the Toilet?”
This small book, compiled by Catherine O’Reilly, is the only one I’ve ever seen with citations only from the Internet. Subtitled, much like Time’s list, as “The Inventions That Changed Our Homes and Our Lives,” the book is divided into the rooms of our homes, listing and telling tales of how our life tools came to be.
Answering the title’s question took a bit of reading as did learning the origins of things like dental floss, tin cans, electric blankets and even weed eaters. After finishing the book, I believe that everything has a story. The story of the modern toilet follows.
Sir John Harrington first invented a toilet water closet back in 1596. It was a gift to his godmother, Queen Elizabeth 1. Alexander Cummings, a London watchmaker, improved the design years later, in 1775, adding a water trap that kept sewer gases from escaping and entering the room.
Nearly 100 years later, in the 1870s, Mr. Crapper promoted a special flushing mechanism that didn’t leak, saving water and related costs. Those devices, called siphons, were the only legal flushing aids in Britain until 2001.
All that time, Thomas Crapper and Company was still actively manufacturing and trading, known to all because “Crapper” was marked proudly on tanks and toilet bowls. An astute businessman, Mr. C. was also a sanitary reformer promoting sanitary fittings to the world. Imagine long-ago store window displays featuring toilets as showpieces. According to Simon Kirby, today’s managing director of Thomas Crapper and Co. Ltd., Sanitary Engineers, “ladies fainted in the streets.”
So, no, darn it, Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet. He did, however, hold nine plumbing-related patents that improved it with specialized drains, water closets and pipe joints. Now we know, and we also know why so many WWI and WWII servicemen returning home from Europe referred to indoor plumbing by a British name.
I’m glad to know that the necessary room in our house contains a device once built for a queen. Is that why it’s called “the throne?”