How The Toilet Changed History



The average person gets rid of approximately

130 grams of poop every day.

Maybe twice that much if theyve had Taco Bell. Seven and a half billion of us on Earth?

That’s a literal mountain of human poop every day.

Yet most of *us* get to pretend it doesn’t exist, all thanks to an invention that has

improved health and quality of life more than any other in humanity’s history.


Bears do it in the woods, whales do it in

the ocean, and 2.4 *billion* of us DON’T do it in a toilet.

Dysentery, typhoid, parasites, and other infections lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths every

year, all because one in three people alive in 2017 don’t have access to toilets and


From on top of our porcelain thrones, weve left a lot of our species drowning in feces.

Nearly a *billion* people still defecate out in the open: in street gutters, open water,

orin the woods.

Thousands of years ago, we all did it that way, but as we developed agriculture and settled

into towns, poop started piling up.

Around five thousand years ago, Neolithic villagers constructed the first known toilets

at Skara Brae.

At the same time, many houses in Mohenjo Daro, featured toilets complete with drains, people

washed their poop into sewers that emptied into the Indus River.

It’d be thousands of years before we linked germs to disease, but avoiding filth has deep

evolutionary roots.

Bodily excretions, death, and rotten smells can be signs of danger or disease, triggering

our innate sense of disgust.

This biological instinct ended up in the moral codes of many religions, like this passage

from the Old Testament instructing the Hebrews to do their Exodus in a… hole-y fashion.

Roman society was comfortable with caca.

At one point, Rome had 144 public toiletslong open benches that emptied into the Cloaca

Maxima, a sewer system that carried waste to the Tiber river.

But the vast majority of Romans simply pooped in a pot and threw it into the street.

As waste and disease piled up, Romans pointed to the stink as the cause of sickness.

After the Roman Empire faded away, this connection between bad air and bad health persisted,

clogging up toilet innovation for more than a thousand years.

During medieval outbreaks like the Plague, doctors wore pointed masks, filled with strong

herbs or perfumes tocleansebad air, which they believed to be the cause of disease.

They were wrong, but this obsession with stink would change the world in ways no one saw


Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Crapper didn’t invent the flush toilet.

That honor goes to John Harington, hisAjaxdevice emptied the bowl with water from an

overhead tank.

But flush toilets didn’t catch on until 1775, when Alexander Cummings revolutionized

the way we poo by adding a water-filled “S trapto block explosive, and supposedly

disease-causing sewer gas from rising up the pipes, the same basic toilet design we still

use today.

During the Industrial Revolution, most people’s business still ended up in streets and cesspools,

and the growing population was too big a load for London’s sewers.

By the mid-1800s, the city was literally overflowing with crap.

With crap comes cholera, an infection from bacteria whose toxins basically cause all

the water in your body to pour out of your butt in the form of diarrhea, death by dehydration.

Cholera hit London in 1854.

Instead of theold bad airtheory, a doctor named John Snow believed cholera was

transmitted by drinking water tainted with sewage.

Snow’s map of cholera cases clustered around a water pump.

When he when he removed the pump’s handle, new cholera cases fell.

Soon after, London enclosed its sewers and diverted waste downstream of London, but doctors

wouldn’t totally accept Snow’s ideas for nearly 50 years.

The Great Depression saw an expansion of sewage treatment plantsand modern toilet paper!–and

this is basically the sanitation system we have today, where magical chairs make nasty

things disappear, out of sight, out of smell, and out of mind.

It’s no three sea shells but we've come a long way.

and this privileged pooping existence lets us keep something else out of mind: The 2.4

BILLION people who still don’t have toilets.

Nearly 800,000 children under 5 still die every year from diarrhea.

More than AIDS, more than malaria.

That’s an Airbus A380 full of children crashing every 6 hours.

It’s estimated last year poor sanitation cost the global economy $260 billion, due

to illness, loss of income, and years of life lost.

Worse, women suffer these impacts disproportionately to men.

In 2007, readers of the BMJ votedmodern sanitationas the #1 medical advance since


Not antibiotics, not vaccines.

Toilets and clean water.

We *have* made progress.

Since 1990, 14% more people have access to sanitation, and *many* fewer are dying, but

fewer is not zero.

With a little effort, we can *wipe* this problem from the Earth.

On the TV showThe Brady Bunch”, their bathroom didn’t even have a toilet.

Pooping is so taboo, it was *literally* invisible.

We can’t even talk about it!

It’s no coincidence that many of our worst swear words involve defecation.

In her book The Big Necessity, Rose George writes: “How a society disposes of its human

excrement is an indication of how it treats its humans too

Everybody poops, and every person who is born should be able to do it safely.

Stay curious!

And pleasealways wash your

hands when youre done.

Hey everyone, as always, thank you for watching and learning with us.

This week’s video was a stinky but important subject, and it was brought to you thanks

to the support of Bill and Melinda Gates.

For years, Bill and Melinda Gates have supported efforts around the world to make people healthier

and make their lives better through innovation, education, and investing in projects to build

a better future.

And it’s working!

Since 1990, an estimated **122 million** children’s lives have been saved, thanks to things like

better nutrition, family planning, economic opportunities, and vaccines.

Here’s some proof: In 1988 there were more than 350,000 cases of polio.

And last year?

Only 34.

Things have gotten a LOT better, and one day soon, that number *can be, and will be zero*.

But whether it’s bringing toilets to 2.4 billion people, or erasing the last few cases

of polio, progress only happens when the privileged pay attention.

Go to to read Bill and Melinda GatesAnnual Letter, and find out all the

ways life has and will continue to improve for the world’s poorest

I’ll see you next time.

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