Plumbing has come a long way, but only in the last tenth of a millennium.

Many of you who have spent time in Europe no doubt have visited some of the imposing medieval castles that dot its landscape. You may have taken note of the little anterooms that served as privies, with openings to the outside through which human waste was deposited in the surrounding moat. One can appreciate how the foul content might have made many foes think twice about trying to breach those otherwise unimposing water barriers.

Imagine the stench endured by medieval kings and queens and their minions on hot summer days! History is filled with examples of regals succumbing at an early age to water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery. If this was the lot of kings and queens, think of how miserable life must have been for the peasants.

In their captivating book, "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, an Englishman's World" (Little, Brown and Co., 1999), authors Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger had this to say: "If the late 20th century is scented with gasoline vapour and exhaust fumes, the year 1000 was perfumed with sh- É requiring the human nose of the year 1000 to function as a considerably less prissy organ than ours today."

Occasionally the architect of a monastery or castle would have the foresight to situate the facility above a stream. This would provide a convenient supply of running water and enable privies to be built above. This is what passed for state-of-art plumbing design in the Western world for about 15 centuries following the fall of Rome.

Schoolbook history tells us that the Dark Ages gave way to the Italian Renaissance starting in the 15th century, when science and art once again began to flourish. Plumbing, however, still would have to wait several hundred more years for its glory days.


As the industrial revolution unfolded in Europe and America, cities became overcrowded, unsanitary hellholes. The English colloquial term for a privy, "loo," supposedly arose from a mispronunciation of the French expression, gardez l'eau ("watch out for the water"), which was the customary warning of tenement dwellers as they emptied their chamber pots on the streets outside.

From the Renaissance through most of the 19th century, cholera and dysentery epidemics were routine on both sides of the Atlantic, nobody having a clue as to their cause or prevention. Many public officials censored reports of these outbreaks, thinking it bad for business and their political reputations. In American cities during the first half of the last century, half of all children died before age five. By 1859, London's population had swelled to 3 million, and the Thames River was an open sewer. Parliament, which sits on its banks, took to saturating its window blinds with lime chloride and other disinfectants to subdue the odor, but it was so repulsive during that year's hot summer that the MPs finally decided to suspend operations for a time.

Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, tinkerers came up with contraptions that could be called flush toilets, and hundreds of patents were issued for these devices in Britain and America. From time to time an intrepid homeowner would attempt to surpass the Joneses by acquiring one of those primitive toilets and moving his outhouse indoors. But these early attempts at modern plumbing were more foolish than innovative. Closets of the era were unsanitary Rube Goldberg contraptions made of poorly fitting metal and wooden parts. They contained ledges and crevices that tended to collect waste. They stunk to high heaven, and most failed to operate as envisioned because of shortcomings in system design as a whole. Their main benefit was to discourage houseguests.

Early American plumbers were missing some key ingredients of an effective system, such as trapping and venting. Keep in mind that most plumbers of the era fabricated their own pipe and virtually everything else by hand. By about mid-19th century, the role of trap seals in eliminating odor had become self-evident to many, and they grasped general principles of venting as well. However, no guidelines existed as to pipe sizes, flow rates and vent placement. Everything had to be learned by trial and error, more often the latter.

One problem seems to have been that there was no plumbing trade per se to pass along such knowledge. Prior to the 1890s, the U.S. Commerce Department lumped plumbers together with gas fitters and other metal working categories.

Plumbing Comes Of Age

Things began to change in fairly rapid order during the last half of the last century. In 1857, engineer Julius Adams was commissioned to design a sewer system for Brooklyn. Working from scratch, Adams developed guidelines and designs for proportioning sewers to population needs, and most important, he published the results. In 1876 the great sanitary engineer Col. George E. Waring Jr. published his landmark book, "The Sanitary Drainage of Houses and Towns," which sparked many municipal reforms. These events coincided with growing acceptance by the medical community of Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease.

In 1885, a massive four-day rainstorm hit Chicago and caused sewage to flush far enough into Lake Michigan to invade the city's water intake cribs located several miles offshore. An estimated 75,000 people perished from the resulting contamination, about a quarter of the growing city's population after its devastating fire of 1871. The catastrophic death toll was more noticeable than similar casualty figures taking place at a slower, steadier pace in other large cities with lousy sewage disposal. It caused city leaders to commission one of the country's most stunning civil engineering feats, reversing the flow of the Chicago River so that it would no longer empty into the lake. The Chicago disaster also etched an indelible message in the public consciousness of the importance of safe drinking water.

Other water-borne catastrophes would break out from time to time, most notably the deadly dysentery outbreak at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, traced to a cross-connection in a hotel kitchen. But as the 20th century picked up steam, these incidents became fewer in number and severity. The modern era of plumbing had arrived. It is best summed up by words once written by the great medical researcher, the late Dr. Lewis Thomas, in the Spring 1984 edition of Foreign Affairs.

"There is no question that our health has improved spectacularly in the past century É One thing seems certain: It did not happen because of medicine, or medical science, or even the presence of doctors.

"Much of the credit should go to the plumbers and engineers of the Western world. The contamination of drinking water by human feces was at one time the greatest cause of human disease and death for us; it remains so, along with starvation and malaria, for the Third World. Typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery were the chief threats to survival in the early years of the 19th century in New York City, and when the plumbers and sanitary engineers had done their work in the construction of our cities, these diseases began to vanish. Today, cholera is unheard of in this country, but it would surely reappear if we went back to the old-fashioned ways of finding water to drink."

A few months ago the World Health Organization came out with a report saying that about a quarter of the world's population lacks safe drinking water, and around 40 percent lives with inadequate sewage disposal.

Our plumbing industry deserves a pat on the back for its monumental achievements of the past century. But there's no time to rest on laurels. Plenty of work lay ahead to make the world a healthier place for the next 1,000 years.