Alexander Cummings: The Scottish Pioneer of the Flush Toilet | History Hit

Alexander Cummings: The Scottish Pioneer of the Flush Toilet

Alexander Cummings S-bend flush toilet patent, 1775
Image Credit: Alexander Cumming, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An essential part of modern bathrooms worldwide, the flush toilet’s evolution is rooted in ancient sanitation practices, Elizabethan courtly renovations and Industrial Revolution technology.

At the centre of its development was Scottish watchmaker and instrument maker Alexander Cumming FRSE (1733-1814), who is best known for being the first to patent an improved design of the flush toilet.

So who was Alexander Cummings, and what improvements did he make to the flush toilet that benefit us all today?

He was originally a watchmaker

Born in Edinburgh in 1733, little is known of Cumming’s early life. It is recorded that he was apprenticed to an Edinburgh watchmaker. In the 1750s, when Cumming was in his 20s, he was employed by Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll at Inveraray Castle as an organ builder and clockmaker. 

He later moved to England as both an organ builder and watchmaker, notably being involved in making a series of elaborate barrel organs commissioned by the Earl of Bute, for which he patented a ‘self-acting mechanism’. He later also patented ‘antisymmetrical bellows’ for organ use.

He wrote books about watches and clocks, the impact that differently-shaped carriage wheels had upon roads and the influence of gravity.

Edinburgh circa 1769

Image Credit: Morris, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He made nautical instruments

By 1763, Cummings was recorded as being a watch and clockmaker on London’s Bond Street. His reputation was good enough that he was asked to help develop nautical instruments; for instance, he made a barometrical clock for King George III

He made a significant number of instruments for Captain Phipp’s voyage in the polar regions, leading to an island in Svalbard, Cummingøya, being named after him.

He didn’t invent the flushing toilet

Cummings didn’t invent the earliest version of the flushing toilet. Instead, the first modern flushable toilet was described in 1596 by courtier and Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harington, who installed an early version of the toilet in Richmond Palace.

The device called for a 2 foot deep, waterproofed oval bowl. Each flush required 7.5 gallons of water which came from an upstairs cistern, which was a significant amount. As a result, he specified that  up to 20 people could use the toilet between each flush. 

As a result, it took several centuries for the flush toilet to catch on in popularity.

If a Victorian met Elon Musk they would completely get him. The world’s richest man, determined to use technology that doesn’t yet exist to colonise Mars. Classic Victorian thinking.
Listen Now

He created an ‘S’ shaped plumbing design

In 1775, Alexander Cummings was awarded the first patent for a flushing version of the toilet. He modified the shape of the bowl, improved the flush mechanism and included an S-trap – more commonly known as a ‘bend’ – to retain water within the waste pipe, thus stopping sewer gases from entering buildings.

This S-trap is still present in most modern-day toilet designs. This design wasn’t without its issues, however; every time the seal leaked, explosive and bacteria-filled sewer gases got into the home, which could be highly dangerous.

Just three years later, a new patent was awarded to Joseph Bramah, who replaced a slide valve with a hinged flap that sealed the bottom of the bowl, which greatly improved the safety and efficacy of the design. 

Thomas Crapper later improved upon his design

In the late 19th century, London plumber Thomas Crapper mass-produced one of the first widely successful lines of flush toilets. Though he didn’t invent the toilet, he did develop the ballcock, an improved tank-filling mechanism still used today. Indeed, the design of the toilet today has changed little since the 1860s.

Portrait of Thomas Crapper, populariser of the flush toilet

Image Credit: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is Crapper’s name which has become synonymous with his toilets (though it’s a common misconception that the word ‘crap’, which predates Crapper by centuries, originates with his name), mainly because of American servicemen stationed overseas during World War One

Unfamiliar with the new invention, American servicemen referred to Crapper’s widely-used toilets as ‘crappers’, and continued to call toilets by the same name after the war had ended.

He was highly-decorated

In addition to his inventing, clockmaking and writing, Cummings helped to develop the intellectual landscape of mid to late 18th century Britain. He became a magistrate in 1779, and two years later was made an honorary freeman of the Clockmakers’ Company.

He co-founded the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783, and was subsequently made a fellow. By the time he died in 1814, he was a highly-respected inventor.

Lucy Davidson