Plumb flush: How the world was saved going down the drain

Hodding Carter’s most recent book is “Flushed: How the Plumber saved Civilization.”

By W. Hodding Carter

Some of you may have heard that the Irish saved civilization-once. You know, centuries ago, when Irish monks and scribes protected the West’s great literary achievements? Well, that’s nothing compared to what a certain unheralded professional has done for thousands of years. This guy saved civilization countless times. Yet today we do nothing but mock him, when we should instead see him as a god among us.

One of the world’s earliest known civilizations is noted for this professional’s work above all else. Without his inventions, the Harappan, circa 3000 B.C., would not have even existed. HE created unequaled contraptions for the sparkling Athenians while the austere Spartans wasted their time performing feats of strength and agility. The Romans worshiped his complex constructions, giving him not only a protective goddess but also the name by which we still know him today. European monks selfishly let him work his wonders in their monasteries even as their flock wallowed in filth and disease. The British empire awarded him medals of honor for his designs while the 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 Britain of Drains, the Hub of Tubs, the Power of Showers, the Brewer of Sewers… the whole number.

You owe it all to the much-maligned men in droopy drawers.

Their contribution to society all started with the Harappan, who lived in what is now Pakistan and India. Five thousand years ago, these lucky people had running water. Miniature gypsum-coated brick aqueducts supplied every home with water that fed a tub and a simple hole-in-the-floor indoor privy – all thanks to the plumber. (It would be some time before the first mechanical toilet, which Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harington, invented in 1596. And the nearest thing to a modern-day toilet didn’t come along until the late 1800’s.)

The Romans gave our heroes their name. The Latin word for lead is plumb, and the men who shaped it into pipes and connected them throughout the Roman empire were called “plumbarii.”

Today, we live in an age in which utter chaos ensues whenever our plumbing goes awry. Yet we hold plumbers in such disregard. We could have risen to great power without electricity, but without plumbing and an adequate water supply? Imagine life without water or drainage. Let me put it this way, if the streets were full of sewage, deaths of epidemic proportions from cholera, dysentery and sepsis would return a heck of a lot faster than Superman.

So, as you sip a cup of coffee, swim in you backyard pool or simply wash your hands, pause for just a moment and thank the men and women of the world’s most humble profession for all that you take for granted. 


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