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Down the Drain: A History of Drainage Systems

Aug 17, 2007
Drains are not among the most glamorous of topic to discuss. Often times the term drain is used to denote negative things.

However, if you would only look a little harder you might be surprised at how intricate, important and ingenious those drain engineers (your friendly neighborhood plumbers!) are.

Drains are not a new invention. In fact, among ancient ruins, signs of rudimentary drains, bath houses and aqueducts (the ancient name for water piping) abound.

The ruins of the Minoan Palace of Knossos at Crete boasts of four separate drainage systems all emptying into a great sewer made of stone.

Imagine the importance of ancient plumbers as the kings and rulers of those days demanded the most comfortable plumbing systems available. And this was as early as 1700 B.C.

Their system for piping involved the use of terra cotta pipes that provided water for the palace faucets and fountains.

Through these marbled, jeweled and gilded conveniences flowed hot and cold water to satisfy the bath whims of the rules of the day.

The crowning glory of those days was the world's first water closet.

Yes, you heard it right. The first water closets were installed in the ancient palaces at Crete. The water closet was made of wood. A small reservoir of water would help the excrement down the drain.

This invention, however, would be lost for more than 3000 years. It would only be reinvented in the 16th century by Sir John Harrington.

Harrington's water closest closely resembled the Minoan version. But again, another 200 years would pass before another Englishman, Alexander Cumming, would patent what would be the modern toilet bowl.

Even in the earliest days, man has always put a premium on sewage management and drainage systems. The principle of waste management was always, 'let flowing waters take their course.' This was an allusion to people relieving themselves at and directing wastewater to the river.

Even Alexander the Great knew the importance of a proper drainage and sewerage system. Alexander received instruction from his mentor Aristotle to make sure that dung from men and animals were disposed far away from camp.

The Ancient Romans were another race that put much value on water and drainage systems. They were one of the most active proponents of law and engineering. And their skill in engineering did not go to waste. They were able to erect great bath houses, drainage and sewerage systems, and of course, the renown aqueducts.

With the use of aqueducts, water from the rivers could not be coursed to the city, where a water dependent population awaited.

The Middle Ages

The study of drainage systems, plumbery, and water supply fell out of fashion in the Middle Ages. The noble bath houses of the ancients had no purpose in this age.

In fact, bath houses during this period carried a mean reputation for hosting wild parties and drunken revelries. During the Crusades, bath houses, and their rooms became synonymous with brothels.

However, without a proper emphasis on sanitation and drainage systems, the general hygiene of the public fell to dismal lows. Situations like this made transmittal of diseases easy.

The Black plague of the 14th century wiped out entire populations. This was made worse by the fact that cities were usually filthy and had no proper drainage system.

In the 16th century, bathing was not even considered a worthwhile activity as people rarely washed themselves clean. During this age, people would rely on perfumes and powders instead to maintain a 'clean' image.

And when they did bathe, the waste water would drain into other reservoirs that would be used for drinking. Talk about water conservation!

Today, it would be unimaginable to have a home without a proper drainage system, and without sewers and cesspools to dispose sewerage in.

From the colorful history of these systems we will better appreciate how important these systems are to a modern civilization.
About the Author
James Monahan is the owner and Senior Editor of
DrainSites.com and writes expert
articles about drains .
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