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Will We Ever Invent Anything This Useful Again?

Recently the highly respected magazine “The Economist” ran a cover story that asked the pertinent question if we will ever invent something as useful as the flushing toilet again.  No matter which way you look at it the flushing toilet has done wonders for public health in modern society.

The humble toilet and its associated water flushing in its many variations and improvements over the years have helped to stop the spread of infectious disease. In fact a survey of 11000 doctors by the “British Medical Journal” in 2007 voted hands down that the world’s greatest medical milestone since 1840 was sanitation which of course the toilet is an integral part of. Despite all the staggering medical breakthroughs and scientific advances the seemingly mundane advance of reliable sewage and reliably clean water supply was judged the greatest medical advance.

The ancient Indus Valley Civilization were the first to use hydraulic engineering in the earliest version known of flushing water toilets. The Romans used latrines over pipes with running water that carried into the Tiber River. The Romans were the first civilised society over 2000 years ago to realise the requirements to have an integrated plumbing system to pipe in clean water and dispose of used water .

In 1596 Sir John Harrington installed a toilet for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, who would not use it because of the noise it made. Contrary to popular opinion Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet but he did popularise the siphon system used to empty the tank or cistern.

For most of us in Australia flushing toilets and the associated plumbing is something we take for granted. Like most of the population the staff at Whywait Plumbing have never known what it is like not to have a flushing toilet inside the house or to have on demand clean running water inside our homes or a fully functional sewer system to take away the used water.

Close to 90% of us live in an urban environment and for that we can thank plumbing, that allows us to do so safely, without fear of contracting water borne diseases.

Clean potable water is the basis for life and without it the risk to public health and the population as a whole increases. The cost to the community of plumbing failures are substantial and always have been. The recognition by “The Economist” and “British Medical Journal” that the flushing toilet coupled with reliable sewage and water supply is testament to the strength of plumbing laws, standards and licensing in not only Australia but also in Europe and North America. This is because doctors recognised the best measure of medical advance is not its complexity but what it does for the average person with respect to length and quality of our lives. The average life expectancy has increased 35 years since 1840 and roughly 30 of those years are attributable to the advances in sanitation and living conditions.

Even in today’s society, not everyone has access to a flushing toilet and in Asia alone some 2 billion people, which is over 60% of the population of Asia, live without an adequate access to sanitation such as toilets. In many places open sewers are the norm. This would not be tolerated in Australia and we are protected from it thankfully by our plumbing laws.

No matter which way you look at it “The Economist” is correct we will possibly as a society never invent anything as useful again as the flushing toilet which has improved billions of people’s lives.


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