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Why we're flush with success

It's difficult to plumb the depths of the debt the civilized world owes to the brains behind our drains.

July 17, 2006|W. Hodding Carter | W. HODDING CARTER'S most recent book is "Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization."

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 BC, 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 Brain of Drains, the Hub of Tubs, the Power of Showers, the Brewer of Sewers

Yep, 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 1800s.)

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. Improving on Middle Eastern and Greek engineering, the Roman plumbarii lifted water supply to new heights (quite literally, with some lead pipes hundreds of feet above rivers and low valleys).

Besides insane emperors and a crushing army, Rome's most exalted creation was its baths and overflowing fountains -- whether planted in semi-arid North Africa or sodden England. While local barbarians thought themselves lucky to gulp a handful of tainted river water, Roman citizens sipped somewhat-filtered water and took hours-long steam baths after a hard day betting at the Coliseum.

Skipping past the Dark Ages, because there wasn't a whole lot of bathing going on, we get to how those Irish monks saved civilization. They had indoor plumbing. As Roman aqueducts and water pipes fell into disrepair and people resorted to throwing their waste out into the streets, monks throughout Europe sat in private latrines flushed by running water and bathed with water supplied through -- guess what -- lead pipes. They therefore stayed clean, healthy and able to scribble down all those great works.

And how did England become Great Britain? Back in the mid-1800s, when London was engulfed by the Great Stink -- a summer in which members of Parliament ran from their chambers thanks to an odiferous attack of rotting sewage frothing in the Thames -- it was the plumbers and civil engineers who set things straight, building unequaled subterranean brick aqueducts and connecting all the city with modern lead and iron pipes. Queen Victoria's son, whose life was saved when a plumber realized that a faulty royal toilet was breeding typhus, declared upon recovering, "If I could not be a prince, I would be a plumber."

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 of Los Angeles were full of sewage, deaths of epidemic proportions from cholera, dysentery and sepsis would return a heck of a lot faster than Superman.

Thanks to our plumbers, we went from a nation in which women wiped themselves with their petticoats and men sought the nearest tree to a nation where grown men can fall in love with a Japanese toilet seat that washes, blow dries and deodorizes with the simple flick of a remote control (Toto Washlet S300, formerly known as Jasmin). However, do we stand up and applaud those wrench-wielding wonders who keep things flowing?

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

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