The forerunner of the modern-day flush toilet was invented near the end of the sixteenth century by a courtier and poet whose risqué literary works put him out of favor with Queen Elizabeth I on a regular basis. While his “water closet” was somewhat more popular in the Queen’s court than his poetry, it was nevertheless considered an oddity beyond the court, and it took another two hundred years before someone, this time a watchmaker, capitalized on the design by inventing a sliding valve that could work between the w.c. bowl and the trap beneath it. A few years later, a locksmith came along and created a hinged valve for the bottom of the bowl. And a while after that, a man of science picked up on the basic idea and created a “wash-out” closet featuring a shallow pan that emptied into an S-trap. By the time a pottery manufacturer came up with the idea of a single-until ceramic (and therefore more sanitary) toilet, it was already 1870, and many more seemingly complex inventions—such as the typewriter, sewing machine, combustion engine and telegraph—had already had their debuts and were making life easier in many corners of the world.
All of the w.c. progress noted above took place in
. When settlers came to the Britain New World, they left their toilet knowledge behind and we had to start here from square one. The “wash-out” became the “wash-down” when American inventors learned to combine the pool of water in the bowl with a P-trap. And by the end of the century, they had discovered that by diverting some of the water from the cistern to the bottom of the bowl and changing the shape of the P-trap exit so it would act like a siphon to the waste going out, a jet flush could be generated. While we caught up quickly once we got rolling, the chamber pot and the outhouse still remained the only choices for both rich and poor in large cities throughout America—as well as in Europe—well into the nineteenth century.
Although absolutely essential to our lifestyle, toilets simply did not get the attention they deserved for a long, long time. One can only guess that the associations necessarily conjured by a fixture that carries our waste away from our bodies made people reluctant to talk about it. The evolution of the modern-day toilet (I’m emphasizing “modern-day” because the ancients, in fact, had some good working models) seems excruciatingly slow in proportion to the need.
Today the importance of the toilet—and its correlative, various water-waste systems—cannot be underestimated, especially when considering the growth that we have seen in this country over the last one hundred years. Our population could not have stood up to the potential for humans to suffer disease without a sanitary toilet and sewage systems. Typewriters and sewing machines, and even telegraphs and combustion engines, are luxuries by comparison.
Just as we had to create dependable, sanitary toilets before we could start building high- rise, multi-housing units (Can you even imagine living in a high-rise and having to use an outhouse?) and commercial buildings such as factories and plants, now we are faced with another toilet challenge. We have to find ways to create toilets that deplete very little of our ever-diminishing water resources. This became a mandate in the mid 1990s, and manufacturers quickly responded to it. But the first low-flow toilets paid for their conservation correctness with their flushing power—so much so that for a while there, “low-flow” became a dirty word.
But Necessity will always be the mother of Invention, and ultimately designers and manufactures found ways to make low-flows more powerful. Part of the solution was as easy as creating wider flapper valves and trap-ways. And instead of relying totally on gravity, pressurized air could be used in tanks to “push” the water into the bowl more forcefully, compensating for the lower water usage.
In recent times we have seen the invention of the flapperless toilet, a gravity-flush toilet that controls water flow with the use of “tipping bucket” technology, eliminating rubber flappers and flexible seals in the toilet tank. Not only does the flapperless design ensure a powerful low flow, but it also prevents leakage due to common seal deterioration—because in the true flapperless, there is no seal.
And even more exciting may be the “pressure assist” toilet. Its high-performance flush is the result of a bladder inside the tank that uses compressed air to ensure sufficient expulsion. One gallon-per-flush (GPF) and even .8 (GPF) is ridiculously low when you compare it to the 7.0 gallons-per-flush that was accepted as the standard only 50 years ago.
Whereas the modern-day toilet began its evolution in the minds of a few creative individuals, now huge multi-million dollar companies are devoting all of their creative energy to ongoing refinements. Each improvement to the toilet means thousands of dollars in savings over the lifetime of the product, and of course it means vast energy savings for the planet as well. Realtors and builders and property managers are beginning to understand that by changing out old toilets for new—in homes, schools, government facilities and commercial buildings—they are appealing to a trend that is driving consumerism all over the country. Retailers and utility companies are accelerating this large-scale “retro-fitting” movement by offering clients and consumers discounts and rebates that make it impossible not to retrofit. Especially now, in this otherwise weak economy, new toilet sales—along with those of other green products—are hard not to notice. If ever there was a moment in the sun for that once-so-neglected fixture—the toilet—it is now.