Sir John Harington: Inventor of the Flush Toilet

Sir John Harington (baptized 4 August 1560 – 20 November 1612), of Kelston, but baptized in London, was an English courtier, author, and translator popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet.  He became a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, and was known as her “saucy Godson.” But because of his spicy poetry and other ribald writings, he fell in and out of favor with the Queen.

Portrait of Sir John Harington

Sir John Harington is best known for his invention of the flush water closet. He installed one at his country house at Kelston, near Bath in Somerset, and described it in a Rabelaisian manner in his A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax of 1596. Ajax was a pun on ‘jakes’, which was slang for a privy, where people could simply use a bucket. Wealthy households might have a close-stool, which had a padded seat with a metal or porcelain container beneath it that still had to be emptied.

Harington’s device emptied itself. It had a pan with a seat and water was pumped up into a cistern above. When a handle on the seat was turned, the water swept the pan’s contents into a cesspool underneath. There was a picture of it in his book and he proclaimed that it ‘would make unsavory Places sweet, noisome Places wholesome and filthy Places cleanly’. He installed one for Elizabeth I at Richmond Palace. She does not seem to have been impressed, but then like other rich people she did not have to empty her own close-stool.

A Schematic of John Harington’s Flush Toilet from His Book “Metamorphosis”

A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) is a book that is difficult to classify.  It is divided into 3 sections:

  • It starts with a lengthy prologue justifying its subject, with many examples from biblical and classical sources relating to excretion and the disposal of sewage;
  • It then describes his invention – the first flush toilet. He had installed one in his own house, and persuaded some of his friends to do the same; and
  • Lastly, there’s his “Apology,” a mock description of his trial for having written on so unworthy a subject, which ends, of course, with his triumphant acquittal.

Some view Metamorphosis as a thinly veiled political allegory and a coded attack on the monarchy, with a description of his flush toilet thrown in.

Harington’s invention didn’t catch on.  Unless there are sewers and running water, a flushing toilet was never really going viable for the mass market.  It’s like have an electric lamp with electricity, or skis without snow.  Sewers and running water didn’t arrive in Britain until the mid-19th century, and what we generally think of as a lavatory was patented by Edward Jennings in 1852.  Harington was way ahead of his times.

Americans like to talk about going to the john, and it has been suggested that this is in memory of John Harington.  Unfortunately that’s unlikely, a john in the lavatorial sense didn’t appear until more than a hundred years after Harington’s death.  It is likely that john was an alteration of jake.

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