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The History of Plumbing

Plumbing consists of pipes and fixtures for water dissemination and collection of sewage for removal. The term plumbing comes from the Latin plumbum, meaning lead, the metal from which pipes were made. While many people think that the Romans invented plumbing, it is in fact far older than the Roman Empire. To find the inventors of plumbing, we must look to Ancient Babylon.

Babylon and Mesopotamia


Founded around 2900 B.C.E., Babylon was, in many ways, the beginning of civilisation. Recorded history began here, with a system of writing and literature, codified laws, use of the wheel becoming common and plumbing starting to take shape in the form of irrigation dams, drains and basins. Working with bitumen and clay with straw to make bricks, some proto-plumbers even began working with lead to make rudimentary fixtures. In the houses of the rich, bath rooms developed, with a drainage system built into the floor. There were reports of six toilets in the palace of Sargon the Great, built with high seats and a system that sent the waste to a main sewer. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon contained a sophisticated irrigation system to keep the trees and plants watered. Traces have been found of the first known “wheel of buckets” technique of water distribution, both in the gardens and in the palace.

Crete and the Minoans


The first flushing water closet was found in the ruins of Crete in the palace of King Minos. As well as the closet, Minoan plumbers laid elaborate sewer systems and were the first to use hydraulics in planning their systems.

Ancient Egypt


The early Egyptians began working with copper to make pipes. Evidence of both copper and brass pipes survive in various tombs of the ancient pharaohs.

Ancient Greece


Hot and cold public baths could be found in any large city in Greece from about 7 B.C.E. Many houses had bathtubs as well as water closets. Water supplies were not only for household use, but also supplied numerous fountains throughout the cities, some of which are still functioning today.

Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome

Rome is well-known for its aqueducts, lead pipes, heated floors and public spas. Water flowed from the aqueducts to each house, with water rates being charged accordingly. The Romans loved their baths and used their public baths as places to socialise, do business and play games. In Pompeii, a bath complex nearly a mile wide was uncovered by archaeologists. Emperor Claudius commissioned an 11 mile long aqueduct which was the height of engineering of its day.

England – Dark Ages to Victorian

Victorian Style

The Romans left many baths and other plumbing features in England, but the Dark Ages which followed left them to ruin. However, once the Dark Ages were over, people once again began to take interest in cleanliness. In 1596, Sir John Harington devised the ‘Ajax’ water closet for Queen Elizabeth. Alexander Cumming patented the first ‘modern’ toilet in 1775.

England passed the Public Health Act in 1848, mandating some kind of waste disposal system in every house. To follow, the government built a network of sewers to carry effluence away from the people and the drinking water. As acceptance came for the flushing toilet grew, diseases like typhoid and cholera became less widespread.

Today and the Future

Future Plumbing

While we have caught up with the Romans and now surpassed them, the future for plumbing is open for new inventions for more environmentally friendly ways to use water for sewerage and to clean that water so it may be reused. As water becomes an ever-decreasing resource, this issue is top priority.

Article by Hightech Group

Photo credit: dynamosquito, Panegyrics of Granovetter, Vít Hassan, theo0023, querida79, Nat Ireland and Martin Beek.

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