And the answer: toilet.
The first flushing toilet in England was designed by Sir John Harington in the 16th century, and called the “Ajax.” Harington wrote a book about his invention, which resulted in a temporary banishment from the Royal Court for his lewd remarks about the Earl of Leicester. Despite his mischievous reputation, he was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite godsons, as well as a distant ancestor to Game of Thrones actor, Kit Harington.
Before we had 3-ply toilet paper, running water, lights, or (God-forbid) privacy in our bathrooms, we had communal toilets that more resembled a hole in the ground than a modern-day commode. For most of history, humans have found a way to use the bathroom in a way that makes sense socially and culturally, but it’s safe to say we’ve made some huge strides in that department. For one, Ancient Romans actually reused water in their toilet systems—they would wash their, er, self-care cleaning utensils (think: sponge on a stick instead of toilet paper), before sending that water back around to the front to be used many more times. For another, the sewage situation in Medieval Europe was essentially “let’s put that over there, and not worry about it”—an idea that was encompassed by (literally) flinging their waste out of windows.
There’s a reason that toilets continually adapt over the years: the generations that have come before have suffered the consequences of poor sanitation, and as our experience develops, so does our technology. For example, the aforementioned poop-flinging of Medieval custom ultimately persisted into the Victorian era and up until the invention of “water closets,” or small bathrooms with rudimentary flushing devices. Before that time, though, cholera and other water-borne diseases ravaged communities in Britain, until ultimately the government was forced to require that every new house have a water-closet in 1848. As the city got to work on a new system of sewers, deaths from cholera and typhoid dropped significantly.
Did you know?
Yesterday, November 19th, was World Toilet Day! While it may sound like a joke, this very-real annual event looks to help shed light on the some 3.6 billion people currently living with poor-quality toilets and unsafe sanitary conditions. A clean, functional bathroom is a basic right that every human deserves, and we can make that a reality. See how to get involved with this year’s World Toilet Day here.