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The History of the Plumbing Industry

The plumbing trade is advanced – commonly believed to be founded by the Romans’ legendary water bridges. If you’re wondering if you should start to learn plumbing – or how to become a plumber – start with the fascinating history of plumbing below.

It Started With the Roman Empire (27 BC – 1453 AD)

While small evolutions to plumbing happened in Babylonia starting in 3000 B.C., the Romans were the first to build elaborate systems that could transport water in and out of cities. By building aqueducts, or water bridges that conveyed water (see picture), the Romans could bring water from mountain springs to supply their cities on the dry plains.

Rome’s sewer system was revolutionary for waste disposal. According to Classics professor Peter Aicher in an interview with PBS, sewers hidden underground “took aqueduct overflow and flushed the refuse into the river.” Previous civilizations simply put waste next to the streets or let it drain away from their houses.

Aicher explained that the Romans were focused on clean water sources. Not only would they search for underground springs to connect their aqueducts to using tunnels, but they would also be able to reroute muddied water from lakes after a storm to places that needed water for industrial or irrigation uses, “where cleanliness was not as important.”

Once water arrived in the city via the aqueduct’s gravity system, it was stored in closed tanks or water towers, Aicher said, usually in one of the highest spots in the city. These tanks were the storage point between the open aqueducts and the closed piping delivery system. Only the wealthiest citizens had private pipes, so most of the piped water was delivered under the streets and back up to fountains, Rome’s well-known giant baths, and public water basins.

The First Flushable Toilet (1500s AD)

While the Romans did extend their innovations to public restrooms, their toilets were not typically connected to the sewage system, Julie Beck said in an article for The Atlantic, for fear of contamination. And because many plumbing innovations halted at the fall of the Empire, the first flushable toilet was not designed until the Elizabethan era, long before indoor plumbing.

Nate Barksdale, for, described the first flushable toilet, invented by courtier Sir John Harrington:

  • It was a two-foot-deep waterproof oval bowl.
  • An in-house cistern provided the water.
  • It required 7.5 gallons of water to flush.
  • It could accommodate 20 people between flushes.

Due to the lack of manufacturing and disposal improvements the Industrial Revolution would bring, Barksdale explained, people did not start to adopt this first flushing toilet.

The First Successful Line of Toilets (1800s AD)

Barksdale notes that two major innovations of the Industrial Revolution allowed the toilet to successfully mainstream:

  • The S-shaped pipe, created by English inventor Alexander Cumming in 1775, which kept sewer gasses from travelling up to the toilet.
  • The ballcock, an “improved tank-filling mechanism still used in toilets today,” invented in the late 1800s by Thomas Crapper, the Englishman recognized by Americans due to his brand’s success.

Thanks to all of the innovations mentioned above, the plumbing trade continues to flourish as experts are needed to maintain, repair, and innovate our plumbing systems. Today’s plumbing trade work with the following:

  • Water supplies
  • Heating systems
  • Gas and oil supplies
  • Drainage systems
  • Piping and fixtures
  • Waste disposal

Now that you have learned about plumbing history, explore the Plumbing and Pipefitting program at Apex.

*Apex Technical School and its instructors are licensed by the New York State Education Department.

Disclaimer: Apex Technical School provides training for entry-level jobs. Not everything you may read about the industry is covered in our training programs.