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The History of Plumbing

Plumbing has a long and fascinating history. For many of us, what we know about
plumbing is represented by the man that shows up at our door when we call for a
plumber. As generally characterized, he is a fat, dirty, ignorant, and uncouth man that we
want to complete his work and leave our home as quickly as possible so we no longer
have to bear the burden of his presence.

Thankfully, plumbing involves so much more than that. There is a world, unseen and
unknown to the majority of us, of highly intelligent men and women working hard to
analyze plumbing related problems and find solutions. The work that those men and
women do benefits all of us, even though we are unaware of them and their work.

Thousands of years ago, when mankind inhabited the earth in small groups of
hunter/gatherers, and the entire population of humans on earth was very small compared
to today, they could find their drinking water in lakes, rivers, and streams and dispose of
their fecal matter in whatever location they happened to be in when the need arose. The
earth and its atmosphere acted as a giant filtering system that detoxified the human

As the centuries pasted, the total population of the earth increased slowly. However, the
sum total of human water needs and waste disposal was still well within the capacity of
the earth to handle. Humans first began to live permanently in one location in large
numbers in the area known as Mesopotamia, which was located between two great rivers,
the Tigris and the Euphrates.

The ability to grow food instead of hunt for food gave humans the option to stay in one
location. However, in order to grow crops you need water. The ancient Mesopotamians
engineered elaborate irrigation systems that brought water from the Tigris and Euphrates
Rivers to their fields and turned a dry, arid area of the world into the Fertile Crescent.

Additionally, archaeologists have uncovered water supply lines and sewers at the ancient
city of Nippur in Babylon. These plumbing systems were constructed about 4500 BC.
The pipe was made of glazed clay. The pipes were short in length and looked like
bottomless pots inserted one into the other to form pipelines of any length. The patterns
of pipe were jar and vase pattern, straight and narrower at one end than the other. They
were about 8 inches in diameter and 2 feet long. We still use glazed clay pipe today. We
often call it terra-cotta pipe.

On the island of Crete at B road Knossos, there is an archaeological site called “The
Palaces of the Sea Kings.” These palaces were equipped with extensive water supply
systems and drainage lines. Again, the pipe used was glazed clay. These were unearthed
in perfect condition after 3500 years. So, the next time one of our customers demands the
best, we know exactly what to sell them. However, we may have a bit of trouble at the
plumbing supply store when we ask for that sewer pipe that lasts 3500 years!

Some Creek cities had water-supply pressure systems. The Creeks would divert a small
stream and have it run through their cities under the paving blocks of the streets. A
portion of the stream would be again diverted to run under the lavatory of each house as
it passed. The human waste would then be carried away by these streams. This worked
very well for those times and is till practiced in parts of the world today. Because of the
heavily populated densities of our present condition, this would not be acceptable by
modern plumbing standards.

As the earth’s population continued to grow and more people settled into the same
location, the need for drinkable water and disposal of human waste grew also. During the
Roman Empire, Roman engineers designed massive structures called aqueducts to carry
water from rivers to their cities. These aqueducts brought water to the city from rivers as
much as fifteen miles from the city. A man who worked on the aqueducts came to be
known as plumbarius.

That is because the Latin word for lead is plumbum and Roman plumbers used lead to
line the aqueducts to waterproof them and prevent algae growth. Also, Roman plumbers
used lead for sewer branches and water supply lines. The letter “b” in the modern word
plumber came from the Roman word plumbarius.

When the Vandals, a northern European tribe, overran and ransacked Rome, they ushered
in the “Dark Ages.” The western world regressed. This lasted for almost one thousand
years (455 AD to 1400 AD). A review of the books of the world’s greatest thinkers
shows us that after St. Augustine (354-430 AD) wrote and died that the next great ideas
put into book form came from St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) in the Summa

That is a gap of approximately 850 years. All fields of study and areas of knowledge
were impacted. Of course, that includes the field of plumbing. During this period, towns
and cities were built without regard to any sanitary considerations. Plague after plague
destroyed more than one-quarter of Europe’s inhabitants. Chamberpots of human waste
were thrown into the streets to be washed away with the next rainstorm.

It took a thousand years for the importance of good sanitation and pure drinking water to
again be recognized. In 1900 AD, the United States had just begun to attain the quality
sanitation practices enjoyed by the Romans of 400 AD. Today, New York City supplies
50 gallons of water for each of its citizens. That is exactly what Rome supplied to its
citizens in 400 AD.