The History of Plumbing

The History of Plumbing

Modern day humans in industrialized countries have had the luxury of toilets that flush and sinks that quickly whisk away dirty water for what seems like forever. But it hasn’t always been this way. Over the course of thousands of years people have improved methods of ridding themselves and their direct environment from potentially disease-causing waste. Plumbing and sewage systems are still being updated today to further expand upon their design and functionality. This interesting article details the history of plumbing and how it got to where it is now.

Prehistoric Plumbing 

First Water Pipes (4000-3000 B.C.)

According to historians, the Indus River Valley Civilization (aka Harappans) from a town in modern-day Pakistan and India called Mohenjo-Daro were the first recorded peoples to create sewers around 3500 B.C. It appears cleanliness was important to this group of people because infrastructure in homes were designed with water pipes that led out to a covered drain area to hold their  wastewater. Even poorer households were equipped with this early sewage system as well.

First Copper Pipes (2500 B.C.)

Around 2500 B.C., the Egyptians created the first copper pipes by developing copper alloys and utilizing copper pipes for their crop irrigation systems. To further confirm this historical record, archeologists in 1994 discovered copper piping for drainage in the pyramids funerary complex. 

First Drainage & Sewage Systems (2000-1000 B.C.)

On the Greek island of Crete around 1700-1500 B.C., a drainage system was recorded to have been made from the steep grade of the land with lavatories, sinks, and manholes. This early system utilized creatively-engineered pipes made from terra cotta.

During this time, archeologists made a plumbing discovery from what was a queen’s bathroom. She appeared to have a 5-foot bathtub that had a manual drainage ability in the floor that would funnel the bath water into a nearby river. This exciting find also showed the queen had an advanced toilet system that could be “flushed” using rainwater or water from cisterns.

First Shower-like System (710 B.C.)

Although this historical recording of showering is not what we would think of today, there is evidence of King Sargon II of Assyria commanding his slaves to help him bathe by pouring cold water over his head. Though the mechanics weren’t there yet, he had the right idea.

Roman Plumbing Systems (500 B.C. – AD 476)

During this time in history, the Roman Empire developed some of the preliminary models of the more advanced forms of plumbing we have now. Sink, showers, tubs, toilets, and drains that are familiar to us now were first invented by the Romans.

One such system was that of aqueducts that transported country water into Rome. This amazing water system once brought nearly 1.2 billion liters of freshwater into the city every day. The water initially funneled into large reservoirs where it was then sent through various pipelines to be used for bathing and toilets. Hot and cold water were available for wealthy Romans and eventually public restrooms and additional water supplies would become an option for the general public.

Although the Romans were very advanced with their plumbing inventions, they made the fatal mistake of updating pipelines with lead which contaminated their water supply and harmed and killed many people, particularly infants and pregnant women. 

Precursors to Modern Plumbing

First Flushing Toilet (1596)

Another plumbing invention was also created for royalty. The godson of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir John Harington was noted as creating the first flushing toilet. Upon using her godson’s toilet for  the first time, Queen Elizabeth I ordered him to build one for her at the Richmond Palace. His mark will forever be remembered by the reference to the modern toilet as “the John.”

America’s First City Water System (Mid-1600’S)

In 1652, Boston was the first city in America to build and implement the first water system. The “Conduit” was developed by early settlers as a waterworks system to fight fires and to be used domestically. Amazingly, much of this system’s pipes were created out of hollowed-out tree logs. 

First Water Main (1664)

Cast-iron water main lines were constructed in France by the order of King Louis XIV. These pipelines went for 15 miles and created a connection between the pumping station at Marly-on-Seine to the palace at Versailles. This water main supplied water to a nearby town as well as the palace gardens and fountains for over 330 years. 

First Mechanical Shower (1767)

The first mechanical shower, called the “English Regency Shower,” was created by English stove and heater manufacturer William Feetham in 1767. This novel invention consisted of a large basin and an overhead water tank that the user would hand-pump water into. When the overhead tank was full, a chain could be pulled by the bather to tip the water from the tank onto their head. The water was then collected into the standing basin below and pumped back up to repeat the process until the person was done showering. Hot water baths were more common by this time so many people were not excited about the thought of “showering” with cold and dirty water. Overtime, however, this simple model was expanded upon until it became what we think of today as a mechanical shower. Also, modern water heaters have made hot showers a possibility as well. 

Modern Toilet Prototype (1775)

Much like the first invention of the toilet by Sir John Harington, Scottish inventor Alexander Cumming received the first patent for an improved model in 1775. While Harington’s toilet rendition was not able to refill on its own or have a means to eliminate odor, Cumming’s prototype was able to link the water inlet valve to the flush mechanism so that the waste pan could be emptied and refilled. He also figured out an S-shaped pipe (aka S-trap) could be installed under the toilet bowl to create a natural water seal that would prevent sewer gas from entering the toilet and thereby successfully eliminating foul smells. 

First Firefighter Water System (1795)

New York City utilized the same concept of hollowed log piping to help transport water for firefighting. They created what was coined a “fireplug” which was simply holes drilled into the log piping at different locations so that firefighters could access water in many places and then “plug” it back up when they were done. 


19th-Century Advances

America’s First Cast-Iron Pipe System (1804-1810)

The city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania was the first to replace the wooden log pipes to pipes made from cast-iron instead. This sturdy system allowed the city to better control water pressure compared to the older wood system. 

First Water Availability and Safety Measures (1815)

In 1815, Philadelphia was also the first city to establish greater access to water for the general public. The inefficient steam engine system was replaced by the Fairmount Water Works system which consisted of a dam and water wheels that operated across the Schuylkill River. This system enabled water to be piped directly to paying customers’ homes and businesses. In addition, water became available via fire hydrants for anyone who simply had the means to collect it (i.e., bucket, bottle, etc.).

First Hotel Plumbing (1829)

Guests at the Tremont Hotel of Boston had the new luxury of indoor plumbing during their stay. Isaiah Rogers designed this first-of-its-kind modern hotel that was equipped with indoor toilets, running water, and free soap. 

First White House Plumbing (1833)

Before 1833, water was pumped to the White House from a well at the Treasury Building. During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, plumbing was introduced to the first floor of the white house and then nearly 20 years later additional plumbing lines were installed on the 2nd floor.

First Municipal Reservoir (1835-1842)

New York drew water from the Croton River to be funneled into midtown Manhattan using their first aqueduct and reservoir system. Although developed in 1835, the system was finally ready for service in 1842 in which approximately 72 million gallons of fresh water were able to make their way to residents. 

National Public Health Act (1848)

In 1848, England established a Central Board of Health and passed the National Public Health Act to set standards for water health and safety after the country experienced severe outbreaks of cholera. This act set the precedent for other public safety acts in years to come. It has been recognized around the world as a major milestone in public health improvements.

America’s First Comprehensive Sewer System (1855)

Around 1850, two major plumbing inventions arose in Chicago: the Illinois and Michigan Canals and the flow reversal of the Chicago River. These creations transformed Chicago into a national trading location. In response to thousands of deaths from multiple outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, city engineers laid sewer lines above the thoroughfares and covered them with dirt. This elevated the streets by about 8 feet which prevented the population from living among their disease-laden sewage. By 1855, an entire citywide sewer system had been built in this manner.

First Commercial Toilet Paper (1857)

Some of the first toilet paper sold to the masses was invented by Joseph Gayetty. He called his toilet paper “medicated paper” because it was made from hemp and aloe. It was touted as “the greatest necessity of the age!” Clearly with recent headlines of toilet paper hoarding, this early invention has remained a modern “necessity.”

First Ceramic Flushing Toilet and Water Heater (1870’s)

The first single-piece ceramic toilet like is recognized today was invented by British pottery manufacturer Thomas William Twyford in the 1870s. Around the same time, cooking, cleaning, hand-washing, and bathing were revolutionized by the invention of water heaters in smaller buildings.

The Truth & Myth of Thomas Crapper (1891)

Although people today attribute Thomas Crapper to the first flushing toilet, he did not create the toilet but instead was a successful plumber and sanitation engineer who opened the world’s first bathroom showroom in 1870.


Contemporary Developments

First Standardized Plumbing Codes (1930’s)

The two men that are notable for creating the first standardized plumbing codes are America’s 31st president, Herbert Hoover and Dr. Roy B. Hunter. Before Hoover became president, he was an engineer and Secretary of Commerce in 1921. Hunter was head of the plumbing division of the National Bureau of Standards between the 1920-1940s. “The Hoover Code” was the first plumbing code coined in Hoover’s honor in 1928 and the work of Dr. Hunter is still referenced today.

First Non-metallic Pipes (1950’s)

In response to the WWII metals shortage, the first plastic pipeline was created in 1952. In 1955, the first polyvinyl chloride (PVC) water pipes were installed across America. Today most pipelines are made with PVC because of its affordability and stability.

First Water Conservation Laws (1978)

Toilets used to typically use at least 6 gallons per flush. California was the first to establish a law that prevented toilets from exceeding 3.5 gpf. This was in response to the state’s drought tendencies. It was recorded in 2013 that California toilet flushing contributed to 28-40% of the 2.9 trillion gallons of water consumed each year.

U.S. Energy Policy Act (1992)

In 1992, The United States Energy Policy Act was enacted to reduce the water-flow rates that funneled into plumbing fixtures. This act mandated the introduction of low-flush toilets and outlawed toilets that flush more than 1.6 gallons of water. 

First International Standards (2003)

To ensure an enforced code and standard in all plumbing projects globally, the International Code Council was founded. This council set standards to construct safe, sustainable, cost-effective, and resilient structures.

Stricter California Conservation (2015)

In 2015, California enforced a standard that stated residential toilets could not exceed 1.28 gallons of water at a time; urinals could not exceed 0.125 gallons per flush; kitchen sinks were limited to 1.8 fashion gallons of water a minute.


Plumbing devices and practices have greatly evolved since several thousand years ago. Not only has plumbing led to the luxuries we benefit from today, it has also revolutionized humans’ ability to sustain healthy sanitation standards that mean the difference between life and death. 

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