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A Brief History of Modern Plumbing

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Many ancient civilizations, such as the Romans and the Greeks, benefited from indoor plumbing, but a lot of that technology was lost during the Middle Ages. Fortunately, we managed to recover the technology and build on it over several centuries.

Setting the Stage

Plumbing was mostly wells and cesspits through the Middle Ages, but there were a few notable exceptions. Iron pipe was created and installed for the first time in 1455 for the Dillenberg Castle in Germany, but it took two centuries before a large system was installed at Versailles.

The first toilet was invented by Sir John Harington for Queen Elizabeth in 1596. Privies became common in 16th & 17th century castles, running directly into the moat.

Water Supply

Before you could have modern plumbing, you had to get your water from somewhere, and the 17th and 18th centuries saw a huge boom in water supply projects. In Colonial America, pipes made out of wood were used to convey water to pumps both in the street and inside houses. In 1782, a French chemist named Melouin invented galvanized iron pipes which could be used to get that water to its final destination.

A lot of water supply innovation occurred in and near London, which was one of the densest cities of the 1600s and 1700s. It started with the New River, a 20 mile artificial waterway that opened in 1613. Over the course of the 1700s, many more private water companies sprung up.


Up until the 1700s and 1800s, sewage usually ran down the streets, which was a major public health concern, not to mention smelly. That stench lead to the first modern underground sewer, which was installed in New York in 1728 in response to complaints about the smell.

But the first complete sewer system was made in London in the 1860s. It was built in response the Great Stink of 1858, an unusually hot summer that produced a smell powerful enough to make the courts and House of Commons consider evacuating London.

The Germ Theory

The Germ Theory of Disease was firmly established and validated during the 1800s, largely due to the work of scientists like Louis Pasteur. Realizing that many diseases were a result of dirty water, the 1800s were filled with innovation after innovation. Filtration became widespread during the 1850s, and chlorination started taking off during the 1880s and 1890s.


With the basics all set out, the 1900s were filled with advancements and improvements of plumbing systems. Lead pipes disappeared, followed a few decades late by lead-based solder. Copper pipes and plastic pipes started to become commonly used. Home water softeners were introduced to remove problematic minerals. Water and sewage treatment plants became the norm, and today we can all count on clean, sanitary water in our homes.

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