The word "plumber" comes from the Latin term "plumbus", meaning lead. In Ancient Rome, a plumber was a worker in lead who repaired or fitted the apparatus of water distribution in and to a building. The Romans were a civilisation of clever and talented craftsmen who erected expansive baths and recreation centres, lead inscriptions to prevent water theft and introduced expansive systems of aqueducts and tile wastewater removal.
Plumbing technology regressed considerably with the fall of the Roman Empire and Early Christians actually considered it vain and even sinful to bathe. In the Middle Ages, plumbing mostly consisted of wells and cesspits and the Thames, Fleet and Walbrook rivers were open sewers.
In 1596, Sir John Harrington invented the toilet for his Godmother Queen Elizabeth. Privies became common within castles, running directly into the moat. In 1775, Alexander Cumming took out the first patent for a "modern" toilet when he invented the S trap, which had a sliding valve underneath to hold the water.
In an event termed the the "Great Stink" of 1858, hot summer weather created a stench potent enough to make the courts and House of Commons consider evacuating London. The incident led to the development of the first complete sewer system in London in the 1860s. Until this point, sewage usually ran down the streets. The development of the Germ Theory of Disease was also important in emphasising the serious health implications of contaminated water. Water filtration became widespread in the 1850s and chloration in the 1880s and 1890s.
Although not responsible for the invention of the toilet, as so often believed, Thomas Crapper did much to increase the popularity of the toilet during the late 1800s. As well as holding nine patents for water closet improvements such as the floating ballcock, he was renowned for the high quality of his products and received several royal warrants throughout his lifetime. The innovator was also the effective inventor of the modern bathroom showroom, promoting his range of sanitary ware to a largely sceptical public.
Many plumbing advancements occurred in the 1900s. Copper pipes begun to replace lead ones after World War Two as the dangers of lead poisoning become better known, with plastic pipes coming in from the 1990s. Home water softeners also begun to be used to remove dangerous minerals.
Today, water and sewage treatment plants allow us all to count on access to clean and fresh water in our homes, and it's hard to imagine life without flushing toilets, but the next time you're getting a glass of water just have a think about the long history of plumbing developments that made it possible!