When doing the business could land you in it


The flushing toilet is a relatively modern invention, with inside loos becoming common only in the 20th century, writes Dr William Reville 

MY ACADEMIC INTEREST in toilets began a couple of years ago when the driver of a tour bus in the Scottish Highlands told us about medieval Edinburgh. Residents in the high-rise tenements all "did their business" in chamber pots that they regularly emptied by tipping the contents out the window onto the street below. The tenement ground floors were occupied by better-off people, who, when they sallied forth on business or pleasure would often be carried on special chairs by servants. As a precautionary measure the servants would shout out "chair below" as they ventured onto the street bearing their precious cargo, hoping to stay the hand of any lofty chamber-pot tipper. "Chair below" became corrupted over time into the modern "cheerio". More details at www.bog-standard.org/pupils_history.aspx

I'm sure most of us devote very little time thinking about the flush toilet and sewerage system. And yet this technology is vital to our civilisation, making high-density human population on the modern scale possible. Imagine life in a modern city where all the inhabitants emptied their chamber pots off apartment block balconies, a common practice 150 years ago.

The toilet as we know it is a relatively modern invention, prior to which facilities were very rudimentary indeed. The Romans were an exception, building sewers to collect sewage and rainwater. They built outhouses directly over the sewers that ran into the Tiber. Public lavatories were common. They were sociable places where people sat side-by-side on stone benches. Backsides were wiped with a sponge on a stick and the same stick was used by everybody. A water channel in front of the lavatory was used to "dip the stick". This may explain the origin of the term "wrong end of the stick".

Following the Roman high-point, the situation deteriorated. The main personal convenience in medieval times was the chamber pot. Open drain channels ran along the streets and people emptied their potties into these channels, often through the open window. When emptying potties through an upper window, they would shout "Gardez l'eau" (French for "watch out for the water"). This is probably the origin of the word "loo".

If you were well-off you might build a small room jutting out from your residence at first floor level or higher. This would be your master-lavatory in which you would erect a wooden box with a hole in it, directly over a hole in the floor. When you felt the urge you would sit on the box and your emissions would quickly leave the premises. In more elaborate set-ups, droppings were directed down a chute and into a cesspit. The people who emptied the cesspits were called "gongfermons". These little rooms were common in castles and were known as garderobes (to "guard the robes") because people kept their clothes in these rooms believing that the bad smell kept moths at bay. This is the origin of the wardrobe.

The flush toilet, as we know it, is a modern invention. Although Sir John Harrington is credited with inventing a flushing lavatory with a cistern in 1596, the idea did not catch on and no examples survive. Incidentally, in the 16th century a toilet was called a "jakes".

The 18th century saw the reinvention of the flushing toilet. Many people think that this was the work of Sir Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) but the credit actually goes to Alexander Cumming who was granted a patent in 1775. Crapper owned a well-known company that made toilets which proudly bore his name. The design was gradually improved but flushing toilets didn't become common until late in the 19th century. The earth closet was much more common. This was a box of clay held over a pan. When you deposited your business on the pan you pulled a lever which covered the contents of the pan with dry clay. This desiccated the waste and minimised the smell. During the 1800s it was gradually realised that poor sanitation caused disease. In 1848 the British government declared that every new house should have a flush toilet or ash-pit privy - toilet with a pile of ash underneath and in 1865 a new sewer system was built in London. It wasn't until well into the 20th century that inside toilets became universal.

While low-tech flushing toilets seldom give trouble, the same is not true for the complex loo on board the International Space Station. Its only toilet broke down on 21st May, forcing crew members to rely on a manual back-up device connected to the broken unit.

The failure has engineers baffled, but spare parts are being sent up on the next space shuttle launch to the station, due to leave on 31st May. And now, some friends have arrived to take me out - CHAIR BELOW!

William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC - http://understandingscience. ucc.ie