The History of Plumbing

Water is an important survival element and providing water has been made much more convenient by plumbing. During ancient civilizations, such as the Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian and Chinese cities, plumbing originated as they developed ways to irrigate their crops and provide public baths, removal of waste water and portable water. Here is a timeline of historical events that shaped the modern systems of plumbing that we know today.


Prehistory-Middle Ages

  • The earliest plumbing pipes were made from baked clay and straw, and the Egyptians made the first copper pipes. They dug wells as deep as 300 feet and the water wheel was invented. We know this because the pyramids for the dead have discovered bathrooms and plumbing features.
  • Hot and cold running water science was mastered by the Greeks. Following their Olympic games, they made shower technology for athletes to bathe in.
  • The most important achievements were made by the Romans, who built channels that carried water from the mountains to the town and distributed lead lines underground.
  • The Roman baths, using wood furnaces, heated their hot water. In a single room, public latrines had 20 seats arranged while water was constantly running under them and carrying waste to the nearest sewer. As towns grew, outbreaks and diseases were caused by the waste.
  • Plumbing technology came to a standstill until many decades later, after the fall of the Roman and Greek empires.

Early Modern Plumbing

  • John Harington gifted the first flushable toilet to Queen Elizabeth I. Because it made terrible rushing water sounds, she was too scared to use it.
  • In America, in the mid-1600’s, Boston pioneered the first water system.
  • J.F. invented the first valve-type flush toilet in 1738. From Brondel.
  • The flush toilet was patented in 1775, the beginning of the modern toilet, by Alexander Cumming.

Modern Plumbing

  • In 1810, the first shower was invented. It pumped the same waste water continuously from the lower basin to the top and dumped water directly above the head of the bathers. It was deemed a novelty and was only performed once or twice a year.
  • In 1815, Philadelphia was the first to adopt a safe supply of water. To draw water from the Schuylkill river into Centre Square, steam turbines were used.
  • In 1830, under New York Streets, the first public water main was installed. Multiple fires meant that an adequate water supply for fire fighting was necessary.
  • In 1833, the White House’s first floor received running water.
  • The National Public Health Act was passed in England in 1848 and became the role model for worldwide plumbing codes.
  • In 1856, because waste was dumped into Lake Michigan, which also supplied the city’s drinking water, America built its first integrated sewer system in Chicago. This triggered a fatal outbreak and claimed almost 75,000 lives.
  • In 1883, John Kohler developed the first cast iron bath made from an iron horse trough.
  • The use of iron, steel and copper was limited by World War II and the plumbing industry was forced to begin using new materials such as plastics.
  • In 1978, water saving laws began to be introduced. California has been banned from using more than 3.5 gpf.

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