We live in a time of marvelous and wonderful modern invention. From trenchless pipe repair to self driving cars to massive steel buildings, there has never been a time of greater human productivity. But all of this modern invention wouldn’t have been possible but without smaller and more humble activities and inventions. Plumbers and plumbing are an excellent pair of examples in this regard. We might live in a world where food and energy are cheap but we are still just human being after all. We need water and basic sanitation to survive. We might not want to think about sewer pipe lining or trenchless pipe repair but they are just as important as the bigger flashier inventions. So how did we get here? How did we get to live in such a clean and wet world when, just a couple centuries ago, access to basic sanitation and running water proved to so immensely difficult. Here’s a short history of how modern plumbing came to be.
- Starting at the very beginning
For most of human history, all of the examined and relatively unknown times, access to water was considered precious and rare. For all of the millions of years where we had no written records, there was no such thing as running water. Or, rather, the only running water our ancestors had access to was in rivers and streams. This worked about as well as it needed to but it acted as natural limit or curb to much of our social and technical potential. For one thing, tribes and villages could only spring up around local water sources. The bigger the river, the bigger the village. There were few rivers big enough to support whole cities so these were few and far between. Irrigation had yet to be invented let alone our modern inventions, again, like trenchless pipe repair or heating and cooling pipes. Our ancestors survived, it’s one of the things we’re best at and we wouldn’t have colonized the planet without it, but they did no more. They survived and that was all. They used the water they could carry and polluted the water they couldn’t. For all of these reasons, it was never a good idea to live downstream from another village. So when and how did things change?
Bring in the Romans
The Romans invented so many useful things, most of which we don’t have time to discuss here. While they historically get a lot of credit for things they didn’t do, there are definitely a lot of things they did do and, quite honestly, did better than anyone else. For a prime example of this, we turn to the aqueduct. The aqueduct might seem like a bit of a humble invention but it had an absolutely enormous impact on the history of the world. In theory, yes, it seems simple. It’s no trenchless pipe repair, as keep saying. It’s only taking water and running into buildings and homes from a distance. The type of plumbing and fitting this took was relatively advanced for the time but it wasn’t extremely difficult for the Romans to pull off. No, the real genius of the aqueduct lay in the sheer distance it could carry water. While it’s true that most Roman cities were still centered around rivers and oceans, for the first time it was possible to build cities that were a little farther inland and more independent. This was the key to the Romans building such a large and flexible empire. It’s not the bigger cities. It’s all in the smaller towns and town cities that sprung up a little distance away from their main water sources.
The modern day home
Of course, today we take this power for granted. It was huge at the time but now we’d be miffed we didn’t get instant access to our water. This is why it pays to stop every once in a while and be thankful for what we have. We can build whole cities in deserts, deserts and not think twice. This would have been unthinkable even a century and a half ago. How far we’ve moved!
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