As an amateur poet John Harington was not a success, but when he turned to inventing and designed the world’s first water closet, he won the approval of royalty.
He was a godson of Elizabeth I, but was banished from court for circulating a risqué story. During his exile – from 1584 to 1591 – he built a house at Kelston, near Bath, and installed the first flushing lavatory, which he named Ajax.
Eventually, the Virgin Queen forgave him, and in 1592 visited Kelston. She tried the invention and ordered one.
Harington wrote a book about his water closet, describing the pan with an opening in the bottom sealed by a leather-faced valve. A system of handle, levers and weights poured in water from a cistern and opened the valve.
But the public did not share Elizabeth’s enthusiasm. It preferred the chamber pot. These were often emptied into the street from an upstairs window, and in France it was customary to cry ‘gardez l’eau’ before pouring. The English nickname ‘loo’ may have derived from this.
It was not until 1775 that a flushing water closet was patented. Alexander Cummings, of London, took it out for a device similar to Harington’s Ajax.
But water seeped through Cummings’ primitive valve; not until 1777 did the notion of the ball valve occur to one Samuel Prosser.
The development of water-closet technology received a boost from Parliament in 1848, when a Public Health Act ruled that every new house should have a ‘w.c., privy or ash pit’.
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