Technology innovations have revolutionised the way we do a number of things, and using the toilet is no different.
The world has come very far from the days of digging the ground to pass excreta. There were also the days of pit and bucket latrines. The times when these were the common bathroom options are, thankfully, long gone. There is also a generation that probably never saw it or used it.
The toilet as we know it right now is the giant porcelain chair that is everywhere. Bathrooms in malls, shops, restaurants, offices and even public spaces have it.
The toilet uses the mechanism of simply getting filled up with gallons of water every day to help get rid of urine and faeces never to resurface again. This is something called the municipal wastewater treatment plant that these wastes go to every time you flush your toilet.
What has changed about the toilet?
The flush toilet that we use daily and cannot think of living without was first patented in 1775. A Scottish watchmaker called Alexander Cumming thought up the idea. It was an altered version of the Sir John Harrington design made for Queen Elizabeth in 1592.
Cumming’s version had an S-shaped pipe that helped to trap the bad odours emitted from the human body. Since then, there have been new inventions like self-flushing toilets, heated seats and vacuum potties that are used on trains and airplanes.
But the design has pretty much stayed constant, and not much has been done to drastically improve it. This is most likely because it is a poop case of “if it isn’t broken, then why fix it?”
A professor at the University of Illinois, USA, Deana McDonagh, said,
“The toilet has remained relatively unexplored, I think because we are failing to realise that, to quote a British saying, ‘where there is muck, there is brass.’ We are failing to see the potential opportunity our modest toilet is offering us because the notion of immersing yourself in such a product makes us all feel so uncomfortable.”
How it all began
In the Roman empire back in 315 BCE, passing out waste was an opportunity to relax. The Romans even had public toilets where they had conversations and caught up with friends.
Fast forward to medieval England where people used private potties that they threw its content out the window. It was not very hygienic and pleasant. The bourgeoise people in that society had a closet out the castle with a hole that emptied into a cesspit.
These forms of human waste management were so unhygienic that it pretty much caused the outbreak of different forms of diseases. There were a lot of deaths in the 19th Century among Europeans, from cholera, typhoid and other deadly waterborne diseases. More than half of the population at the time died before the age of five.
The deaths made it imperative that a more sanitary way of getting rid of human waste be made. It was this period that the British parliament commissioned the construction of the sewer in London. They completed this in 1865.
It greatly made the world saner as more people started to embrace the idea and the deaths reduced immensely. It was also this period that Cumming, and later Thomas Crapper, introduced different variations of the toilet.
This fast became a standard for every home to have. But the truth is that not a lot has changed ever since.
What should change?
McDonagh has some great ideas into what the future of toilets should be. Like everything else that is getting the influence of technological advancements, the toilet is too important to be left behind.
“As individuals are taking more responsibility for their health, eating habits and wellbeing, the bathroom offers a somewhat blank canvass for us to integrate intuitive technology to support the individual. Imagine a toilet that could tell you how hydrated you were, whether you were deficient in particular vitamins, warn you of blood in your stools and changes in your hormones. We literally flush all that information away each day in the form of waste matter.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched a challenge in 2011. It was tagged, “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” The next generation of toilets is expected to be able to compost human waste, kill pathogens and do all of these with fewer or no sewer infrastructure. It should also be able to work with limited water and no electricity.
Human waste is also expected to be mined and recycled to make phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen. This can be used for plants and help build things.
What other improvements do you think will be great for the toilets?