JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post #112
This I think is mostly a nonsensical whimsy of a question, and answer, but here it is anyway: what do you suppose is the greatest advancement in the prolongation of human life from 1842-2000? Is it the discovery of Joesph Lister of the sterilization of surgical instruments and maintaining a sterile surgical environment? Is it Alexander Felmings discovery in 1928 of the antibiotic substance penicillin (from the fungus Penicillium notatum) ? W.T.G Morton’s discovery of anaesthesia in 1842 or Wilhelm Roentgen’s introduction of the X-Ray in 1895? There is an entire time line of likeables for this category, but one that I don’t see is the invention of the indoor, flushable toilet.
Consider this—it is the invention of this device (and the associated treatment plants) that removed all kinds of human nastinesses and pestilence. In a sense too it also enabled the industrial revolution and the development of large cities, as you cannot have a large metropolis supporting complex industrial grids without having the most basic necessity for living conditions for the workers.
Thomas Crapper (1837-1910) really did put his name on his invention—as did many other Victorian toilet makers with their own inventions—but he was about the first to introduce the remarkable and incredibly satisfying invention, and it was his name that stuck to the function that his invention relieved.
It is a little odd to me that the first truly functioning flush toilet seems to have been aboard the semi-submarine Merrimac in 1862; it sounds odd but I can easily see how it would be a huge advantage to have one of these things on your ship than not. (Walter Chrysler had a bathroom installed at the very top of his building in NYC, the top-most room, so that for a while, old Walter was able to do what no one else in America could do, higher.)
As it turns out, what we popularly think of as “toilet paper” was invented at almost the same time as the flush toilet—there were earlier paper products appearing in large sheets and such going back hundreds of years, but the stuff that is readily and easily recognizable really is an almost simultaneous development. “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper”, with Joseph C. Gayetty’s name imprinted on every sheet, made its first appearance in 1875 as the first of these necessaries. Rolled and perforated papers were to follow in another 20 years, the products of stiff competition for priority between the Scott Paper Towel Company and the Albany perforated Wrapping Paper Company, bringing their products to market just after centennial in 1877/8. (For an interesting toilet paper history and tour, see here.)
I know that the toilet really doesn’t quite come up to the Lister standard of astounding medical advancement, and the same can be said for the others—but I think you could make a strong argument for the flushable toilet to have as much an impact on prolonging life as any of them. The argument might not be right, but it would be strong.