Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 157:
THOMAS CRAPPER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 157.

Today, we deal with a word that really shouldn't be used in polite company. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Every time I teach my course in the history of technology, some student informs me -- often with a salacious grin -- that the flush toilet was invented by a 19th-century Englishman named Thomas Crapper. Well, he didn't really invent the flush toilet, but his name is indeed a cloud that hovers over its history.

The flush toilet was actually invented in the 18th century. It was an important landmark in the Industrial Revolution -- closely tied to the new technology of steam-power generation. In the mid 18th century, the important concept of automatic liquid-level control arose -- both in steam boilers and in the tanks of these new water closets.

Thomas Crapper was a real enough person. He was born in Yorkshire in 1837 -- long after the first flush toilets came into use. His biography by Wallace Reyburn is titled Flushed with Pride. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, but it's nevertheless quite complete. Thomas Crapper apprenticed as a plumber when he was still a child. By the time he was 30, he'd set up his own business in London. He developed and manufactured sanitary facilities of all sorts until his death in 1910. He held many patents and was in fact an important and extremely inventive figure in creating modern water-closet systems.

But did he really give his name to these systems? Reyburn claims that many American soldiers in WW-I were off the farm -- that they'd never seen anything like the classy English water closets -- that they called them by their brand name, much as the English call a vacuum cleaner by the brand name Hoover.

The problem with this explanation is that the word almost certainly derives from the 13th-century Anglo-Saxon word crappe. It means chaff or any other waste material. The modern form of the word was certainly in use during Thomas Crapper's life. So not only was he not the inventor of the flush toilet -- it's also unlikely that he really gave it his name, either. What he did do was to carry the technology forward.

This business points out something historians have to guard against. Now and then a really good story comes along -- one so well contrived that it should be true, even if it isn't. Who wants to admit that no apple ever fell on Isaac Newton's head -- or that George Washington didn't really chop down the cherry tree? What humorless pedant wants to insist that Thomas Crapper didn't really invent the flush toilet!

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Reyburn, W. Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971.

The following websites give more background on Thomas Crapper and on the invention of the flush toilet

http://www.theplumber.com/crapper.html http://www.theplumber.com/closet.html

For more on the evolution of the toilet (or water closet) see Episodes 846 and 1289.



Thomas Crapper


One of Crapper's water closets

Images by Maria Szigmond Baca, by permission of Peter Gordon


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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