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Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilizationby W. Hodding Carter
The first time I actually took any notice of plumbing, beyond plunging a stopped-up toilet or anointing a sink with Liquid-Plumr, was about nine years ago. My wife and I had bought a fixer-upper in a small town in southern West Virginia. Our contractor had cleaned us out, and so whenever anything went wrong we ended up fixing the problem ourselves. One day I was in the basement trying to shovel out an old slag pile — refuse from when a coal-powered furnace heated the house. (This was West Virginia, after all, where even in 1996 it was almost a sin not to be heating with coal.) It was a thankless job that was going to take a day or two of nonstop shoveling in a five-foot-high space. I'm six-foot-one. Unsurprisingly, after a few hours I grew careless and swung my shovel too far and hit a blindingly white plastic pipe that came from the floor above me and disappeared into the dirt below. The impact cracked the pipe.
I thumped it with my hand a couple of times and determined that it was hollow. Reasoning it wasn't a supply line, I figured I could probably cut out the bad part and put some kind of connector piece in its place. It looked like it might take an hour at most. Who needs a plumber? I thought, laughing confidently to myself.
I measured the pipe, drove to the hardware store, and found out the stuff was a plastic called PVC, short for polyvinyl chloride. Being a youngish homeowner and having never worked at a construction trade, I was completely ignorant of PVC, but it has an overarching history, when you take into consideration that PVC is what we commonly refer to as vinyl and, quite often, simply plastic. The stuff is everywhere, and no wonder, considering what it's made of.
The raw materials for PVC are salt and oil. The passing of electricity through salt water produces chlorine, which is combined with ethylene, derived from oil, to form vinyl chloride. This is then polymerized, which essentially means small molecules of one or more substances are combined to form a larger single macromolecule, or polymer. Additional items, called plasticizers, are added afterward, depending on the desired form or plasticity you want for your PVC. In goes salt and oil and out comes your dashboard.
PVC was invented several times and in different forms starting in the mid-1800s, but it was always too brittle. The inventors did not know how to make it resilient and therefore usable. Finally, in 1926, an American chemist named Waldo Semon, working for B. F. Goodrich, figured out that adding tritolyl phosphate to the mix would make the resulting PVC both resilient and pliable. It was probably one of the most important chemistry breakthroughs of the twentieth century, as far as manufacturing was concerned. Yet still nobody knew what to do with it. Stephen Fenichell, author of the highly readable history Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century, jokes, "Semon's seminal substance...was practically stillborn, since industrial uses for this new water-resistant, fireproof material — which could be molded or extruded into sheets or film — were not immediately apparent." Semon was told to come up with some practical use for PVC or risk losing future research funding. Thus inspired, he cried eureka after watching his wife sew together shower curtains, which at the time were made of rubber-backed cotton. PVC, in the form that would become commonly known as vinyl, was going to replace rubber as the ultimate waterproof material. Thereafter, since it resists both water and to a lesser extent fire, the uses of PVC became seemingly endless, from a coating for electrical wires to a replacement for rubber tires to the irresistible Naugahyde to the ever-present credit card and, of course, to shower curtains.
All great stuff — but there is a huge downside. PVC is toxic to both humans and the environment. When PVC is made, workers, and those living in communities surrounding a PVC plant, are exposed to vinyl chloride, a carcinogen. Chemical companies themselves discovered this when numerous PVC workers from around the world started dying of the same type of liver cancer. Under pressure from the U.S. government, PVC manufacturers began requiring all workers involved in the production of PVC to wear respirators and protective clothing.
The problem with PVC doesn't stop there, though. While in use, some toxic additives can leach out. Phthalates, plasticizers found in vinyl flooring and in plastics used in car interiors, have been found to cause cancer and to lead to demasculization of male fetuses. That new car smell we all love so much? That's the volatization of phthalates caused by the hot sun.
PVC also wreaks havoc at the end of its life. At recycling centers, when it inadvertently gets tossed in with recyclable plastics, it burns and destroys the surrounding plastics and harms the recycling equipment. Its burning also frees those same dioxins released in its manufacture.
Regardless, the world currently produces about eighteen million tons of PVC a year and it is probably the most lucrative chemical compound in the world. As far as plumbing goes, since the 1950s PVC has slowly become the material of choice for domestic drainage and ventilation. It's lighter and cheaper and easier to use than either cast iron or terra-cotta. You could conceivably carry an entire house-worth of PVC waste plumbing on your back. You could cut it to the right size and, after gluing (which is also toxic), be finished in two days. In other words, PVC is here to stay.
Back at my hardware store in West Virginia, after I described the situation in my basement, the salesman agreed that I had probably hit a drainpipe and that given its size — four-inch diameter — it was probably the main drain, or waste stack. Although it serviced two toilets, three sinks, a shower, a bath, and the washing machine, he agreed with me that it didn't seem like a big problem. My eight-months-pregnant-with-twins wife was at work, so I didn't have to worry about anyone using the water and having anything leak all over the basement. I'd only busted a short section. He guessed the repair wouldn't even take an hour. I bought everything he suggested: pipe glue, pipe cleaner, an extra length of PVC pipe, and three couplings with female openings. Presumably, I'd only need two; the third was backup, a required item, I'd soon learn, for all plumbing situations.
I returned to the basement almost giddy. I was doing home repair and plumbing at the same time. Take that, Bob Vila. I'd once claimed on a Peace Corps application that I'd make a great water works volunteer because I'd tinkered with my family's toilets since I was a kid (only true to the extent that I had reset the lift chain and plunged the bowl countless times), but the Peace Corps wisely put me to work teaching history in a secondary school. Here, finally, was my chance to prove my claims.
I began by cutting out the busted part using an electric reciprocating saw. When finished, I had a foot-long gap that I could now fill with replacement pipe and a couple of couplings. Victory. For about five seconds. Then I noticed that the bottom part of the pipe was movable. I gingerly pulled on it and it popped out like a greased finger from a glass Coke bottle.
I was staring into a hole in my basement floor and the malodorous gas I'd begun noticing while cutting the pipe was suddenly inescapable. I was sucking in hydrogen sulfide, methane, and other substances from my entire neighborhood's sewage. Sewer gas, because of the hydrogen sulfide, is as toxic as cyanide. At low dosage levels, it causes eye irritation, dizziness, and headaches — all of which I was feeling. At higher doses, you lose your sense of smell, which often leads to fatal doses because you don't know you're breathing the bad stuff anymore. You breath in a few more times, it paralyzes your lungs, and you die. You really don't want to be around sewer gas in enclosed, low-ceilinged spaces (like a musty old basement) because the gas is heavier than air. Luckily, I realized what was befalling me and I stuffed a rag in the gaping pipe. In the early days of mass municipal plumbing, sewer lines often had backflow flaps that would stop not only other people's sewage from coming up your sewer pipe but also their gases. In an 1888 plumber's catalog, the Penn Company claimed of its "patented improved sewer pipe trap" that "backwater and draughts of air that frequently force poisonous gases and the contents of sewers into houses cannot pass this trap." However, the opposite was usually true; the flaps hardly ever worked, invariably causing clogs and failing altogether after relatively short time periods.
I grabbed the pick and began swinging for all I was worth — in my now-customary crouch on account of the basement's five-foot height. I had to be finished in four hours before Lisa returned from work.
About two hours later, I had chipped away enough of the floor to discover that the pipe made a ninety-degree turn about a foot below the basement floor. After the turn, though, the pipe wasn't plastic anymore. It wasn't even metal. It was terra-cotta. And it was cracked. From the looks of it, it had been cracked for quite some time — the dirt surrounding it was moist and stinky. Our waste was intermingled with that of the previous owners, heralding a new beginning. Life arises from shit, the grand enricher. (I think the fumes were still getting to me.)
It was hard to know for certain how cracked it really was because to unearth the pipe I had to strike all around it with my pick. For all I knew, I could have been cracking it myself. I wouldn't be done before Lisa got home.
Two days later, I had uncovered only six feet of broken pipe. The dirt floor had switched to concrete after a few feet and so I'd also had a day of jackhammering. However, I'd finally come to a place where the pipe looked strong and solid. I didn't know this for sure, but then I also didn't plan on living in this house for the rest of my life. I stopped digging.
It'd been a rough two days, but I remember lying on my back in the muck, staring up at the plastic and metal pipes that various people had installed, and marveling at my plumbing's overall structure. It looked so simple and graceful — maybe not easy to do, but simple in an artistic way. It was a labyrinth of pipes that made sense to somebody, and as I stared at it, following each pipe to its beginning and terminus, it began to make some sense to me, too. It was no longer inexplicable and out of bounds.
Here, finally, by literally digging in my own and others' waste, I finally understood something about a house. It was such a cathartic experience that I decided then and there that someday I would become a plumber. That night, after I had successfully fitted PVC to clay piping using a rubber sleeve with hose clamps, I told my wife about my epiphany. She'd just come home from work and had a pained look on her face. Upon my proclamation, she merely nodded and asked if it was now okay to use the bathroom. Being pregnant with twins had made the last few days a bit stressful for her.
Almost ten years have passed since that fateful moment, and while I haven't become a plumber, I want to know what a plumber is, what he was, and how he got us to where we are today. Obviously, he's the guy who works on water systems flowing into, out of, and within buildings. But can't we also say he's the guy who first created urban water systems, like Rome's famed aqueducts and the in-some-circles well-known Cloaca Maxima? (Cloaca Maxima, which means "the greatest sewer," even had a goddess, Cloacina, watching over it and was built around 500 bc — predating the first water-supply aqueduct by two hundred years — to improve drainage of the city of Rome. An embankment envelops the Cloaca today but it still performs some drainage. You might have stared at it admiringly without even knowing it: John Singer Sargent made a mesmerizing watercolor of a woman washing clothes at its outfall in 1869.) Yes, those guys were called aquarii and were engineers of a kind, but at heart weren't they really plumbers? Haven't we overlooked the contributions of this profession for far too long?
And then more questions arise. When I tell friends and strangers alike about my interest, they invariably smirk and/or look away. Why is this a difficult subject? What made bodily functions so private? They weren't always so, and in some parts of the world still aren't even today. And what makes bathroom humor so popular? Does it mark the downfall of a society, as some pundits would have us believe, or is it the dawn of a new era? Some historians have suggested that the use of silver and gold chamber pots by the Romans marked the decline of that civilization. Does breaking taboos surrounding excretion amount to the same thing? Is our end nigh?
In answering these questions and more, I hope to show this subject in a new light and perhaps convince a few readers to genuflect before the porcelain god even when not overcoming the effects of overindulgence. At the very least, if you're opposed to revering common idols, please pause and consider the men and women who have brought us our water for thousands of years. You wouldn't be here if it weren't for them.
One of the world's earliest known civilizations, the Harappan of the Indus Valley, circa 3000 bc, is noted for one professional's work above all else. Today's scholars marvel at his ingenuity and precocious skills. Whenever, wherever a society arose from this point on, it was on this humble professional's back. The sparkling Athenians let him create unequaled contraptions, while the austere Spartans wasted their time throwing spears and performing feats of strength and agility. The Romans worshipped his complex constructions, placing a goddess in charge of his effluent, and gave him the name by which we still know him today. European monks selfishly let him work his wonders in their monasteries while their neighbors wallowed in filth and disease. The British Empire awarded him medals of honor for his designs while the Americans and French played catch-up, always imitating but never quite equaling the British professional's work.
This unsung hero of human history was, of course, the Brain of Drains, the Hub of Tubs, the Power of Showers, the Brewer of Sewers...the humble plumber.
The Irish may have saved civilization, once, but plumbers have done so countless times.
Admittedly, I might resort to a bit of hyperbole when considering the contributions of this profession. Many in my family think it's because the subject affords me the opportunity to talk about things scatological under the guise of a more serious topic, but they're wholly mistaken. I like plumbing — the art, the science, the craft, and the history — for the simple reason that it is so undeniably important and necessary. Without it, even with electricity and the Internet, we'd be living in a state akin to that found 150 years ago (and there are some two billion people still living in such a state today). Yet we take it for granted. We don't appreciate it. We never marvel at it. We never hold forth on why plumbing is such an important utility and why it has always been what separates the developed from the undeveloped — from 5,000 years ago to today.
Let there be no mistake. A clean modern water supply, working toilets, and environmentally safe sewage systems are what divide the successful from the unsuccessful, the comfortable from the uncomfortable, and the privileged from the unprivileged. And it's been this way for thousands of years.
Think about it. On a fundamental level, what is more important to you: Electricity or running water? Your computer or your toilet? Shock and Awe or a sewer system?
Without electric lights, you could use a candle. Without water coming in or going out, however, where are you going to go? It'd be a bad enough situation for the guy living in rural Idaho suddenly having to run outside, dig a hole, and cover it back up each time, but what about those of you in New York City?
A lot of things would go awry without proper plumbing. We would not have our much-vaunted general good health, and without our health, we would not have the time or energy to learn and prosper. Things didn't start getting better for Europeans in the eighteenth century because of improved health care; on the contrary, doctors back then probably killed more patients than they saved. People started living a little longer and having a bit more freedom because cities started to supply their residents with water and then, very slowly in places like London and Paris, figured out how to get rid of waste.
Unknowingly, we owe our modern way of life to Roman lead workers, to the unnamed craftsmen who plumbed early European cities, and to the ingenious work of such men as Sir John Harington, inventor of the water closet in 1596, and Thomas Twyford, champion of the one-piece toilet. Thomas Crapper didn't invent the toilet (a widely held misconception), but he did improve it, marketing a valveless toilet in the late 1800s in England. Crapper was a simple plumber and manufacturer, but we know his name so well because his toilet was the most popular brand in England during the First World War. Our doughboys, it is guessed, would announce they were going to the "Crapper." The euphemism crossed the ocean when they came home. By some strange coincidence, crap, as slang for feces, was used long before Crapper came on the scene. Etymologists believe it is derived from the Dutch word krappen, which means to cut off, and its earliest known written usage was in 1846, when Thomas Crapper was only ten years old. This is a perfect example of an aptronym, a name that is suited to the profession of its owner.
Plumbers and inventors like these were once held in such esteem that they were even the envy of royalty. When Queen Victoria's son Edward, the Prince of Wales, suffered from a near-deadly case of typhoid, a plumber realized that a faulty water closet in the house where the prince had been staying was breeding typhus and fixed the situation. After he recovered, Prince Edward declared, "If I could not be a prince, I would rather be a plumber."
Today, though, the plumber is, more often than not, merely the butt of jokes. Plumber's crack is about all many of us know of this age-old profession. Yet, clearly, plumbing waters run much deeper. (By the way, a Web-based suspender company recently devised a strapping device that they claim will end plumber's crack forever. The device is being product-tested at this very moment. Early word has it that plumber's crack could soon be a thing of the past.)
So, here's your chance to catch up. See how plumbing's conveniences have flowed through time and shaped our modern world. It's one of those things we all have in common, poor and rich alike: our need for and reliance on plumbing. Plumbing is the great equalizer. After all, as the title of a popular children's book from Japan points out, Everyone Poops.
Copyright © 2006 by W. Hodding Carter
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