A system of metallic plumbing pipes
Pipes that convey fluid? That’s plumbing.
Photo by jiawei cui: https://www.pexels.com/photo/chrome-pipe-lines-2310904/

Plumbing is a term used to describe a system that conveys fluids.

“The system of pipes, tanks, fittings, and other apparatus required for the water supply, heating, and sanitation in a building”

(Oxford English Dictionary)

Plumbing can also describe the action of repairing or replacing pipes, valves, tanks and other plumbing fixtures.

Usually, we use the term plumbing to cover systems like potable water delivery, waste removal, and heating/cooling. The infrastructure of plumbing is an essential part of sanitation and public health planning; without it, there would be serious problems.

The etymology of the word ‘plumbing’ is an example of the belief we have in the invention of plumbing coming from the Romans – the word derives from the Latin plumbum because the pipes used in fluid systems in the Roman Empire were made of lead.

However, the real history of plumbing extends way further back than the Romans, although they did have a hand in making things much more efficient.

Pre-civilisation Plumbing

Nomadic tribes would base their settlements around the provision of water, preferring to stay near places where there was plentiful surface water (like rivers or natural springs). It was in the Neolithic period that wells started to be dug, and water collected and transported by hand, with evidence of this dating back to 8500BCE in what is now Cyprus. These were the first water wells, but the first time we have uncovered evidence of what could be a two-channel freshwater/wastewater system indoors was in the houses of Skara Brae. Dating from around 3000BCE, this was a neolithic settlement in the Orkney Islands in Scotland where there was also evidence of a cell-like structure that could well have been the first indoor latrine.

Across all ancient civilizations, the beginnings of crude sanitation and water delivery systems were developing.

Ancient Mayans developed interconnected wells using underwater tunnels, and the Mesopotamians started using clay pipes in 4000BCE to both remove wastewater and to collect rainwater. These pipes were designed to have detachable segments, that meant they could be replaced or repaired as well as just being easy to clean. The Mesopotamians seem to have the first brick-built latrines (dating from 3200BCE).

In Ancient Egypt, (about 2400BCE) pyramids were discovered to have a network of copper drainage pipes, while Ancient China is where we have found the earliest examples of deep-water wells being dug.

When it comes to public water supply and sanitation, it is the Indus Valley where we have the earliest evidence of shared plumbing. Both private and public baths and latrines linked to open street drains, and then discharged into the docks – until sewage was transported underground.

The Ancient Greeks weren’t left behind with all this. Not only did they develop extensive and advanced underground clay pipe systems for both sanitation and water supply, but they were also the first ones to come up with a flush toilet, using clean water.

But What About the Romans?

There is a good reason why we credit the Romans for much of our infrastructure – and part of that is the innovation relating to plumbing.

To start with, let’s consider the Cloaca Maxima. One of the world’s earliest sewage systems, running from Fort Augustum into Ponte Rotto or Ponte Palatino on the River Tiber, public latrines were built over it, and it removed waste as well as draining the marshes.

Of course, they built aqueducts and the Noria (water wheels) to supply them – and these aqueducts and pipes would terminate in public wells, fountains, and even private residences (using lead pipes, of course).

Cultural Impact on Sanitation

In Islamic tradition, there is a lot of importance placed on cleanliness and personal hygiene, which means that regular washing and bathing is an important part of religious beliefs in Islamic countries. Islamic cities developed early water supply systems using hydraulics, but they did not really focus on sanitation, meaning that canals, waterways, and even streets were corrupted with things like corpses as well as human (and animal) waste.

In Medieval Europe, the Church urged followers to visit the public baths (separately based on gender, naturally). The urge for better sanitation and water supply did not leave Europe with the collapse of the Roman Empire, as is sometimes believed, but in fact bathhouses remained a popular fixture in bigger cities.

Into the High Middle Ages, little detail is known about plumbing – but we do know that unsanitary conditions were at least partially responsible for the multiple plagues like the Black Death which resulted in such high levels of mortality.

European Plumbing

Europe was really the home of plumbing in the early (modern) times. Most cities didn’t really have a functioning sewage system until the Industrial Era – instead, relying on either pail closets, outhouses and cesspits to collect human waste (or worse, letting it run into the streets and relying on rain showers to run it down the road.

In London, the contents of the outhouses were collected nightly by specially commissioned wagons to be delivered to nitrate beds. This created earth that was rich in minerals, especially saltpetre, which was an essential ingredient in gunpowder.

The Industrial Revolution

During the 18th Century, the rapidly growing population of London demonstrated that there was a need for private water supply networks – this became the infrastructure that we know today, developed over many centuries before (and after).

Treated water was seen as one of the most important parts of this, and the first instance of this came from James Simpson of the Chelsea Waterworks Company in 1829. The idea then become more mainstream after a cholera outbreak in 1854 in Broad Street, attributed to contaminated water.

Before modern sewerage systems, cesspools and other waster collectors were the answer to municipal sanitation – relying on gravity to discharge to surface waters and causing multiple outbreaks of diseases. Around 1900, the importance of treating these discharged waters became part of public health intervention, and drastically reduced incidences of water-borne diseases in the most crowded areas of London (which is attributed to increasing life expectancy).

A Note on Sewage Treatment

Sewage was used as fertilizer on agricultural land, until the demand was outstripped by the supply, and something needed to be done about it. In the 1840s, cotton mill owner James Smith created trials of sewerage farms, looking for ways to treat sewage before discharge to make it less damaging. He came up with flat-bottomed tanks as reservoirs (a patent later filled by William Higgs) and that lead to the idea that the waste could be chemically treated as well as relying on gravity and sedimentation to separate it.

Initially, the chemicals were employed to treat the odour, then drained, and the settled solids were removed. It wasn’t long before it was discovered that the addition of oxygen would also remove odours – this was the earliest experiments with aerobic and anaerobic biological treatments of waste.

The first septic tank was patented in 1895 as a bacterial version of a cesspool – and these are still in use today, particularly in rural areas that are not connected to the municipal sewage system.

Filtration, then, became the focal point of sewage treatment. Edwin Frankland discovered that by filtering it through porous gravel, he could create nitrified effluent that was then able to be oxidized on a ‘contact bed’ (usually an inert substance that could offer maximum surface area for bacterial growth, like stones and slate. This then produced what was described as activated sludge, a well-known current treatment for wastewater.

Drinking Water

Water treatment wasn’t just reserved for making wastewater more useful. The first public water supply in the world used a sand filter, and this soon became the regulation in London and the UK, and later across the wider European continent.

The addition of other minerals and extras to the water supply was something of a contentious subject, but it was Moritz Traube who suggested in 1894 that chloride of lime (calcium hypochlorite) be added to the water to help it remain ‘germ-free’. This idea was embraced by most, not least in Kent where Maidstone became the first town to have their entire water supply treated in 1897. This became a permanent fixture across the UK by 1905.

Another recent human addition to our drinking water is fluoride. Trendley Dean studied the effects of fluoride on tooth decay and found that regular consumption would help prevent it – so that is what the governments did. This first-ever comes from the US, where in 1945 Grand Rapids became the first city in the world to fluoridate all their water (soon followed by almost everyone else).

When your plumbing goes wrong, or you are upgrading your existing system or parts, it is interesting to know a bit more about the history of plumbing – you can count yourself lucky that you have a proper system and that your pipes are no longer made of lead!

Give us a call if you need some help with your plumbing – we might not be able to fix a Mesopotamian clay pipe system, but we definitely know our way around more modern options.