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How the humble S-bend made modern toilets possible

16th October 2017

How the humble S-bend made modern toilets possible

In 1858 the London's City Press printed a lead article with the title "Gentility of speech is at an end" "It stinks!"

The smell in question was partly symbolic and politicians were failing to tackle an obvious smelly problem

As London's population grew, the system for disposing of human waste became completely deficient.  To relieve pressure on cess pits - which were prone to leaking, overflowing, and spewing toxic methane - the authorities had instead started encouraging flow in to sewage gullies. Nice!


However, this created a different issue: the gullies were originally intended for only rainwater, and emptied directly into the River Thames.

That of course contributed directly to the smell and the Thames became an open sewer. The outcome on the health of Londoners was devastating  and Cholera was rife. One outbreak killed 14,000 Londoners - nearly one in every 100.

Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette drew up plans for new, closed sewers to pump the waste out of the city. It was this project that politicians came under pressure to approve.

The sweltering-hot summer of 1858 had made London's reeking river impossible to ignore. The heatwave became popularly known as the "Great Stink".

If you live in an area with modern sanitation, it's hard to imagine daily life being infiltrated with the suffocating smell of human excrement.

For that, we have the unlikely figure of Alexander Cumming to thank. Cumming's was a master craftsman of watches renowned for his skill of intricate mechanics.  But Cumming's world-changing invention had nothing to do with precision engineering. It was a bit of pipe with a curve in it.

In 1775, Cumming patented the S-bend. This became the missing ingredient to create the flushing toilet - and, with it, public sanitation as we know it today.  Cumming's solution was simple, bend the pipe. Water settles in the dip, stopping smells coming up; and flushing the toilet replenishes the water.

Hundreds of thousands of Londoners queued for the opportunity to relieve themselves while marvelling at the miracles of modern plumbing.

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