Plumbing, as far as human history is concerned, is a fairly new phenomenon. Before the 19th century, water wasn’t piped directly into houses. The methods of water transport we know of weren’t even a thought. Metal piping was yet to be in use at all and with the concept of a true sewer system had been drawn up and lost since the age Rome, there wasn’t much faith in its success.
A dirty truth
The first thought flushing water closet belonged to a king of Crete, but it was lost under ruble until the late 1500s. Shortly thereafter, English royalty recreated a similar system but released a terrible book that earned him and his invention ridicule for the rest of his days. It would be roughly 200 years before the experiment was attempted again.
During this time, all attempts were halted and the use of chamber pots and outhouse became common. The sanitation issues were obvious and the need to keep them away from living quarters and thus out in the cold made them incredibly uncomfortable, but the trend was slow to change. Bathing standards were also horrible during this time as disinformation and living in the cold northeast made bathing often dangerous.
During the 1700s bathing did pick up in popularity, but for the wrong reasons. People would bathe in and drink foul water. The people following the trend believe foul water could cure diseases and in their efforts to become healthier, would further deteriorate their health. This lead to bathing becoming viewed as a health hazard. In 1835’s Philadelphia, bathing during winter was almost banned and in 1845 Boston, it was forbidden barring method advised to do so. Fortunately in the same year sanitary sewers were beginning to make great progress, but the issue of the open sewer connections making homes uninhabitable needed to be resolved.
The closest thing to plumbing at the time was water transported via wood piping. New Yorks first major water supply was from a reservoir that sourced from wells and ponds. Its existence was brief and it took New York another 50 years before it would conceive a viable system for public waterworks, but it served the purpose of laying the groundwork for future innovation.
Racing towards better health and a modern age
While metal piping has been in use since the early 1800s, it wasn’t until 1842 that it was used to modernize plumbing to a standard similar to todays. Building on the theory of the prior reservoir system a system of cast iron pipes was installed, but couldn’t handle the demands of the firefighters during the great fire of New York and broke down.
In response to this a new, more thoroughly researched pressurized system was to be completed in New York. It was well built but left no solution for wastewater. Roughly a decade later, an engineer was tasked with creating a sewage system for Brooklyn, New York. There was no information to be used beforehand, but his scientific method not only accomplished the task but his data obtained from starting the project from scratch enabled him to create the designs and guidelines that made modern sanitary engineering feasible.
With a population boom that saw a populous of 350 increase to over 60,000 in a few decades, Chicago needed to meet the water demands of its people and was determined to do so. They completed a project that made headlines around the globe by supplying the city via a system of twin tunnels that reached two miles out in Lake Michigan. The first tunnel was complete in 1869 and consisted of a 138-foot-tall pipe that served the purpose of equalizing pressure en route to the city’s water system. It provided 15 million gallons of water a day to Chicago powered by steam engines and survived the great Chicago Fire. The original building still stands as today.
With the New York and Chicago projects a success, modern plumbing had finally been pieced together. Advances in science were able to draw the correlation between foul water and disease increasing interest in sanitary water and mass production lowered the cost of the indoor bathroom. The days of the outhouse and chamber pot had drawn to a close. There was still much to learn however as plumbers had not yet fully modernized yet.
Over the coming years, plumbers would introduce new piping types to the industry. Tin-lined lead for cold water service, enameled or rubber-coated iron piping, and finally tin-lined galvanized and stainless steel would become mainstays. Copper piping was added after the first world war and in the modern era, plastic tubing is used un specific conditions.
These innovations were forced by constant breakthroughs in science. Lead piping was proven to be highly toxic, iron rusted and in the modern era galvanized pipes have issues with magnesium and calcium buildup causing many issues. To learn about that is it may affect you check out 6 easy steps to clear blockage galvanised pipes.
Plumbing, man’s greatest medical advancement
Considering that the science behind germ theory has only existed since the civil war, humanity has come a long way towards betterment. The importance of modern plumbing truly can’t be understated. The black plague as well as other insect and rodent borne catastrophes can be directly attributed to lack of running water and buildup of harmful bodies within the standing water.
With this in mind, it may be safe to say that the greatest advancement in the health of modern man may not have been penicillin, but plumbing, the modern toilet, and today’s sewage systems. Sanitary engineering will continue to advance and hopefully it can bring better health to other populations will achieving sustainability for all.