Year of Invention: 1875
What Is It? A system of underground pipes to collect liquid and solid waste and
prevent it from contacting a city population or a city’s drinking water supply.
Who Invented It? Joseph Bazalgette (in London, England)
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the whole concept of cities and civilization seemed to teeter on the edge of self-destruction as the overpowering stench and danger of sewage threatened human survival. The smell grew unbearable. Disease ran rampant—especially cholera and other fever-producing diseases. Rats and cockroaches ruled the streets and alleys. Every European city had grown into a smelly, filthy, horrid, disease-ridden death trap. Then sewers—like the cavalry in old Western movies—arrived just in the nick of time, saving both Western civilization and countless millions of lives.
Rome built the first sewer—a single underground pipe several miles long. Part of it is still used today. However this sewer served only a small part of the city around the capital. Sewers were not built again until well into the Renaissance.
European cities built public latrines. London Bridge had two ten-seaters that dumped straight into the Thames River and served more than 150 houses. Wealthy families built their own privies (commonly called jakes). The middle and lower classes often settled for one per neighborhood. Inside houses, wealthy people strategically positioned chamber pots and night pots so they wouldn’t have to trudge out back or down the road in the rain and the dark.
Each morning someone had to empty the contents of all those pots into area cesspools (deep pits for the collection of human waste) or—often—just out into the street. Over the years, contaminants from these putrid mountains of waste leached deep into the ground and contaminated city water wells. Disease struck from two directions: from open piles of waste and from contaminated drinking water.
Two changes set the stage for the development of true city sewers. The first was the development of flush toilets. Sir John Harrington invented the flush toilet in 1597. He built