Everybody thinks they know who invented the toilet – Thomas Crapper. But the flush toilet has been invented, and re-invented, many times throughout civilised history. In fact, you could even say that the flush toilet is civilisation – whenever society reaches a certain level of sophistication, toilets are ‘invented’.
Who really invented the toilet?
The true answer is that we don’t know, because back in the 26th century BCE, flush toilets were ‘installed’ in houses at Mohenjo-daro, the Indus River Civilisation settlement. Not only did they have flush toilets, they had a sewage system, and bathrooms with drains that led to the main sewage system, they also had stone floors that are so water-tight they could be used like modern wet rooms. It’s safe to say that the person who invented the toilet back then also had a real handle on hygiene.
King Minos of Crete had a flushing toilet in his palace at Knossos over 2,800 years ago. Recent archeology discovered that when he died, a Chinese king of the Western Han dynasty had a toilet installed in his tomb, 2,000 years ago. These weren’t toilets in the modern sense – in fact they were a retrograde step from the Indus Valley civilisation toilets because whilst the Mohenjo-daro toilets had a sewage system and running water, both the Cretan and the Han dynasty toilets were hand filled by servants who tipped water into a cistern above the toilet to make it operable.
Who invented the first flush toilet?
In 1206, Persian inventor Al-Jazari invented a hand washing device that incorporated a mechanism almost identical to the flush mechanism used in contemporary flush toilets. While it wasn’t actually a toilet, his invention was the forerunner of the flush system that we still use today.
Who invented the first flushable toilet in 1596?
Once we refine the question a little, we can see a clearer timeline. Queen Elizabeth I was the recipient of a gift from her godson, Sir John Harington. John Harington was nominally a poet – but got himself banned from court for telling dirty stories and was sent to Kelston to wait out the queen’s displeasure. During his time there he build a house, one feature of which was a flushing toilet he invented and called Ajax (possibly a reference to its ‘heroic’ flush which required 7.5 gallons of water, possibly a reference to the Elizabethan slang for toilets: ‘jakes’. When he was forgiven, and the queen visited his new home in 1592, she was so impressed by the toilet that she ordered one for herself which was installed in Richmond Palace in 1596 … but once it was built she rarely used it, apparently because it was so noisy.
The guy who invented the toilet
There were many ‘guys who invented toilets’. Like the steam engine, there was a community of engineers and inventors working in the same field, taking different approaches and having varying degrees of success.
Alexander Cummings, a watchmaker from Edinburgh, patented the first flush toilet design in 1775. One of the big problems with the Harington toilet was that it had a straight pipe, which meant that noxious odours flooded back into the room. Cummings had a simple, but ingenious, adaptation that changed all that. He added the S bend which meant water was permanently retained in the toilet bowl, causing sewer gases to remain in the sewer rather than seeping back into people’s lavatory spaces.
Two years later, Samuel Prosser patented the hinge valve which is used in all toilets to keep things that go down the toilet from coming back up! He called it the plunger closet. And in 1778 Joseph Bramah refined the idea. He’d discovered that most toilets in London houses were prone to freezing in cold weather and he designed an improvement that used a slide valve, rather than a hinged flap to seal the bottom of the bowl. This 1778 patent was so successful that the ding continued to be produced until the mid 19th century. Original Bramah toilets can be seen at
Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, which was Queen Victoria’s preferred home after the death of her husband, Prince Albert.
George Jennings won the Medal of the Society of Arts for his ‘indiarubber tube taps and tube’ which supplied water for his toilets. It was the Jennings toilets that were exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1851, as the first ever public toilets. For the cost of a penny each visitor got a freshly polished toilet seat, a towel, a comb and their shoes shined. As a result the euphemism ‘to spend a penny’ became common parlance and local authorise began to install their own public toilets which could be used for the same price of a penny.
Which leads us to 1861 and Thomas Crapper. Thomas Crapper started out as a toilet installer who rapidly gained a reputation for excellent work. During this period he recognised that there was high demand for top quality toilets and expanded his activity to include building flush toilets to the Albert Giblin design. So the person that everybody thinks invented the toilet, Thomas Crapper, wasn’t even a toilet designer, simply a populariser. What made Crapper such a household name is that he was the first person to open a bathroom showroom in 1870 and then to become a mass producer of toilets. Where he was an innovator was in the area of the cistern, where he developed a ballcock system rather than the valve system that had been used earlier.
While toilets are called Crappers in part because the American servicemen stationed overseas during World War I called the flush toilets ‘crappers’ because of his name on the cistern, the actual term ‘crap’ predates Thomas Crapper by a long period. In fact it’s first used sometime between 1066 and 1500, way before Crapper made his toilets. It’s just a strange coincidence that this word which originally meant rubbish, siftings or something cut off and rejected, has also become associated with the toilet.