Did Sir Thomas Crapper Invent the Flush Toilet?


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It is a common misconception that the modern flush toilet was invented by a 19th-century British plumber named Sir Thomas Crapper. Crapper (1836–1910) most certainly did exist, and he was a plumber. He also improved the functionality of the early flush toilet (or "privy," or "water closet," as it was then called). But he did not, contrary to popular lore, invent the pseudo-eponymous bathroom appliance from scratch.

Why We Call It the “John”

Credit for inventing the toilet goes to 16th-century courtier Sir John Harington, who not only came up with the idea but also installed an early working prototype in the palace of Queen Elizabeth I, his godmother. Harington, a noted wit, entitled his description of the device "A New Discourse of a Stale Subject."

It consisted of a large pan ("stools pot") with a seat, the contents of which could be flushed out down a pipe and into a cesspool below with water from a cistern or holding tank above. Except for the turning of a handle to initiate the flush, gravity did all the work.

"If water be plenty, the oftener it is used and opened, the sweeter," Harington wrote of his contraption. But if water was scarce, he continued, "once a day is enough, for a need, though twenty persons should use it...And this being well done, and orderly kept, your worst privy may be as sweet as your best chamber."

Crapper’s Contribution

The first patent for a flushing water closet was issued to watchmaker and inventor Alexander Cumming in 1775, 60 years before Thomas Crapper was born. But Crapper was in the right place at the right time and knew an opportunity when he saw one.

The son of a Yorkshire steamboat captain, young Tom Crapper's destiny was set when he was apprenticed to a master plumber in Chelsea, London, at the age of 14. By the time he was 25, he had owned his plumbing shop. As the business grew, Thomas realized that in addition to making money as a plumber he could meet the growing demand for bathrooms featuring functioning toilets. This led him to open one of the very first bathroom showrooms, in 1870. An industrious sort, Crapper was awarded nine patents for plumbing innovations during his lifetime, three of them consisting of improvements to the flushing water closet, or toilet, as it came to be known.

Another Myth Debunked

Though he made his name as a sanitary engineer to blue bloods, his company supplied plumbing fixtures to Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey, among other royal estates. Crapper himself was lowborn and was never knighted. So, it's a mystery why storytellers insist on awarding him the title "Sir,” although that misconception might account for why we sometimes call our bathrooms "throne rooms." Compounding the error, Crapper is sometimes referred to as "Sir John Crapper."

Thomas Crapper died in London on Jan. 27, 1910, at the age of 74. His company, Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd., still exists to this day in Stratford on Avon, England.