Today, an Elizabethan poet invents a most
remarkable metaphor. 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.
Sir John Harington's father
had first been married to the illegitimate daughter
of King Henry VIII. But Harington was born to his
father's second wife. So he missed being
Queen Elizabeth's nephew, and Elizabeth assumed the
role of Godmother to young John Harington.
The high-spirited Harington had easy natural wit.
He was a fine poet. In his mid-twenties he
translated the story of Gioconda -- the raciest
part of Ariosto's epic poem, Orlando
Furioso. He was probably trying to impress the
ladies of Elizabeth's court.
Trouble was, the Gioconda story sounded a little
like Elizabeth's marital negotiations with European
monarchs. She angrily ordered a very odd
punishment. She suspended Harington -- sent him
home. He was not to return until he'd finished
translating the entire work of almost 40,000 lines.
So he went home and worked. In 1591 he produced a
loose English adaptation of Orlando Furioso.
It's still the best known translation today. That
time in the penalty box hadn't cured him. Five
years later he was in hot water again.
This time he'd written another book, titled A
New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the
Metamorphosis of Ajax. It turns out that the
word jakes was Elizabethan slang for a privy. Ajax
was code for "a jakes." Harington had done a
discourse on the design of toilets -- and on
The book is loaded with double meaning and literary
allusion. On one level, it asks us to recognize
true obscenity. Harington's biographer, D.H. Craig,
sums up Harington's moral:
... the truly dangerous sinners are those who
deny the animal side of humanity and disguise it
On another level, Harington transcended his own
literary gaming to describe the mechanical design
of the first flush toilets -- devices he'd actually
installed in fancy country houses. Indeed, he'd
even equipped the Queen herself with one.
Our modern flush toilets have three elements. A
valve in the bottom of the water closet, a
wash-down system, and a feedback controller to
meter the next supply of wash-down water. Harington
had invented the first two -- the valve and
The Ajax book is an unrelenting assault on
hypocrisy. The invention of the flush toilet
changed life as we know it, but for its inventor it
was only a metaphor. When you stop and think about
it, all our inventions are metaphors. Automobiles
are metaphors for motion. Clocks are metaphors for
planetary rotation. Harington's flush toilet was a
metaphor for a clean spirit. In the end he wishes
readers would, and I quote,
find [an equally sure] way to cleanse, and keep
sweete, the noblest part of themselves, ...
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of
Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive
Craig, D.H., Sir John Harington. Boston:
Twayne Publishers, 1985.
Rich, T., Harington & Ariosto: A Study in
Elizabethan Verse Translation. London:
Oxford University Press, 1940.
Elliott, C.D., Technics and Architecture: The
Development of Materials and Systems for
Buildings. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
1992, Chapter 9, "Sanitation."
For more on the history of the toilet see Episodes
157 and 1289.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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