July 17, 2006


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. (W. Hodding Carter, July 17, 2006, LA Times)

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."

Flushed: Brothers Judd interview of W. Hodding Carter (Orrin Judd, July 17, 2006, Enter Stage Right)

W. Hodding CarterIn his new book, Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization, W. Hodding Carter plunges into the reality and history of sewage and plumbing with all the zeal of a missionary. His message for modern man is that we need to face up to the fetid facts about our own body functions and the technological marvels by which we process them. The book is as funny as it is fascinating and we recently had the honor of an e-mail interview with the author.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 17, 2006 2:46 PM

How many jokes can you get out of a former aide to Jimmy Carter writing a book about the history of sending stuff down the toilet?

Posted by: John at July 17, 2006 10:32 AM

My brother brought a copy of this over to my dad, who ran a plumbing company that fed and schooled all of us kids. Dad has always maintained that modern sanitation (i.e., plumbing) is more responsible for average lifespan gains than any other technology.

I think this Hodding Carter is the former Carter official's son.

Posted by: ted welter at July 17, 2006 11:23 AM

Sanitation, hygiene and nutrition is responsible for almost all.

Posted by: oj at July 17, 2006 11:34 AM

... and water treatment and supply.

Posted by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 17, 2006 1:27 PM

As a self-trained plumber (with a law degree, radio show, and remodeling business), you can imagine how much fun I have ribbing my emasculated yuppie neighbors for actually being proud of their cluelessness and having to call "people" to fix every little thing that goes wrong in their houses.

Given my very public attacks on their mediocre, yet overpriced education system (local tax referendum), I'm sure to be popular at this week's block party.

If I get him on my show OJ, will you link to the Podcast? You made at least one sale here.

Posted by: Bruno at July 17, 2006 4:00 PM

Richard Lewontin agrees with OJ & Ted (but throws in antibiotics as the last significant medical advance in terms of lifespan).

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at July 17, 2006 4:10 PM

I read a study down by the health insurance industry that proved that the only thing to significantly affect public health has been improved sanitation. Remember: tip your garbageman every Christmas.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at July 17, 2006 5:44 PM

We do take our comforts for granted. A friend just came back from a couple of weeks in Taiwan and Tibet. Quite the combo. She said Tibet was so filthy, the "facilities" so rudimentary and the smells so overwhelming, she found it difficult to appreciate the wondrous sights. Taiwan was, by way of contrast, a literal breath of fresh air.

Posted by: erp at July 17, 2006 6:18 PM

My favorite part of Expedition Everest is that Disney spent millions recreating poverty.

Posted by: oj at July 17, 2006 9:57 PM