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How the Modern Toilet Has Evolved

The 13th April marked the birthday of Joseph Bramah who was born in 1748 and was a famous inventor best known for developing the hydraulic press. As well as being a locksmith, Bramah also played a key role in the improvement of toilet design having patented design changes in 1778 which included a hinged flap that sealed the bowl and alleviated the problem of the water freezing during the cold winter months.  With examples of his work still in operation at Queen Victoria’s Osbourne House, we reflect on how modern toilets evolved into the sleek design and water efficient models that are in use today.

With evidence of flush toilets in their earliest form dating back to 3100 BC early designs featured toilets made from brick and stone, and with the development of basic sewers many toilets were built directly above the running water to enable the removal of waste as was the case in Roman times, although this luxury was only available to those of the affluent classes.

In 1596 John Harington invented Britain’s first flushing toilet, which featured a flush valve and wash down bowl, which allowed the water to be released from the tank and empty the bowl in the process.  Harington installed the device which he named Ajax in his manor in Kelston in Somerset, as well as an installation at Richmond Palace for his godmother Queen Elizabeth I.

Alexander Cummings held the first patent in 1775 for his flush toilet, and his S shaped plumbing design was later modified by others to produce the U and J shape.  Cummings solution featured a sliding valve in the bowl outlet, effectively solving the problem of stench travelling up from the sewer below.

In 1851 George Jennings installed the first public toilets at Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition.  With a charge of 1 penny over 827,000 visitors used them, with the service including a shoe shine, towel and comb and most importantly a clean seat. The following year Jennings patented his designs for improvements in traps, valves and pumps in water closets.

By the 1880’s with further underground pipe networks developed to improve sanitation, Thomas Crapper was producing flush toilets with improvements made to existing designs through the syphon system replacing the floating valve and reducing leakage in the process.  During this period Frederick Humpherson from Chelsea based Beaufort Works demonstrated the first flush-down toilet, with Thomas Twyford producing the first one-piece ceramic model, which incorporated the internal designs of George Jennings.

By the early 1900’s patents were issued to Thomas MacAvity Stewart for his vortex-flushing toilet bowl, with Philip Haas developing the flush rim toilet in addition to recycling mechanisms for which he was also granted a series of patents.

With duo-set cisterns available for the first time in 1980, the work of Australian Bruce Thompson whose designs featured 2 buttons with the 2 flush options, significant savings were able to be made on water usage, and this set the standard for the highly economic models that are so popular today.


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