A Thumbnail History of the Art of Plumbing

It’s good to mix it up every once in awhile, and I’m always interested in how things are made and how they start, so this week I decided to take a look at the history and origin of plumbing.

It turns out that the Ancient Roman Empire had an awe-inspiring plumbing system that supplied fresh water to a city that had 1,000,000 people living in it at it’s height. Some of that system was made of lead piping, and it turned out that “plumbum” is the Latin word for lead, and so “plumber” became the title for the specialized workers in the city that installed and fixed anything having to do with this massive plumbing system.

Ancient Roman plumbers installed and repaired pipes, tubing, drains, gutters, flashing – anything that had to do with bringing water into the city, and taking waste away, which is pretty much exactly what we do today. I’ve long suspected that plumbing has to have been around for a while, but who knew it was an ancient and noble art?

Basically – creating a town or a city requires a source of water, and when you need water to come from somewhere and go somewhere else – you need plumbers, so – we’ve been around for a long time. Trying to pin down exact dates isn’t my job, but some of the most interesting high points of plumbing include:

  • 1700 BC  the ancient Minoan civilization creates complex plumbing system that includes sewage disposal and drainage for the first time; King Minos of Crete has the first flush toilet
  • 800 BC Roman Empire takes about 500 years to build more than 300 miles of huge aqueducts that bring fresh water from as far as 57 miles away, supplying a city of more than 1,000,000. Some of it actually still works today.
  • 300-1400 AD after Rome falls, civilization moves into “The Dark Ages – and cleanliness take a large hit as all things considered “Roman” are rejected by as the barbarian cultures that take over afterwards. Clean drinking water isn’t seen as a necessity, and bathing is largely viewed as “vanity” in the eyes of God, so – plumbing becomes a somewhat lost art. There are a number of dirty, smelly centuries where people are too busy trying to survive to worry about clean water.
  • 1500-1600’s Queen Elizabeth I has a flush toilet created specifically for her in 1596. King Louis XIV has a cast-iron plumbing line constructed to bring water to the palace in 1664. The idea of supplying towns and cities with clean water and taking away waste is “rediscovered,” and Boston builds America’s first “city waterworks system” to fight fires in 1652. Pipes are made of hollowed out trees, however.
  • 1700’s-1800’s The first underground sewer is installed in New York city in 1728; the smell was considered the main problem. A patent for a “flushing toilet” was given in 1775. In 1804 Philadelphia is the first city to switch to cast iron pipes; they create a complex system of water delivery that makes them the global leader in plumbing. Laws are passed that start creating public plumbing systems to bring clean water in and take waste away, as Louis Pasteur makes the connection between contaminated water and disease. Around 1850 running water indoors becomes more readily available, in 1869 Chicago installs the first “city water tower.” Private homes begin to install water heaters in 1870, though they are somewhat dangerous because of the inability to control water temperature, which led to explosions. A “high tank” toilet is on the market by the 1880’s; it uses 10 gallons of water per flush (low-flow toilets today use about 1.6 gallons). In 1890 the first water treatment system in the world is built in Massachusetts to purify water for drinking.

 

  • 1900-2000’s The “water closet” is invented around 1900, and by 1920 – toilets begin to look like the toilets we have today. Indoor plumbing is in almost all homes, however indoor toilets in rural areas are still lacking up until the 1950’s. From 1930’s to 1960’s the “golden age” of plumbing innovation and inventions explodes; regulators, faucets, pipes, fixtures, toilets, sinks – all the many household items that provide and remove water from structures see a constant flow of improvements and changes.

And innovation in the world of plumbing and plumbing fixtures continues, as the world starts to realize that our water supply is finite, and we need to make improvements in the way we use this precious resource.

One of the most important things I discovered though, was that the plumbing profession has been organized for over 125 years. The National Association of Master Plumbers held their first meeting in 1883. In 1926 we began writing a model code that established a system of ethics and behavior for our profession.

Since then we’ve created education requirements for plumbers, and a standard for excellence and best-use principles and practices that continues to evolve over the years. My company and every plumber that works for me knows how important integrity, training, and experience is, and that’s what we bring to our customers. We’re proud of our background and history, we’re proud of our track record, and we’re proud of the kind of service we’ve brought to our customers for over 20 years.

 

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