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You knew it was coming, didn’t you? World Toilet Day on Saturday, November 19? Designated by the United Nations to draw attention to the fact that 2.5 billion people lack access to the most basic sanitation. Every year 315,000 children die of diarrhea caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water and millions of people suffer illnesses, some of them fatal, which could have been prevented entirely with proper access to a toilet. It’s sobering to think that something most of us take for granted is a lifesaver to so many others. We should never forget how lucky we are.
This year, at Thanksgiving, why not propose a toast to the toilet and give thanks to those brilliant bathroom benefactors whose inventions keep us clean and healthy every day?
Start with Sir John Harington. Born in 1560, Harington was a true Renaissance man: poet, translator, inventor, courtier and godson to Queen Elizabeth I. People had been using rudimentary versions of toilets--outhouses, chamber pots, and open pits--for thousands of years, but Harington added one essential ingredient: the flush. The mechanics of a flushing toilet were described in Harington’s most famous written work, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. (“Ajax” is a play on “a jakes”, slang at the time for a privy.) Harington’s model included a basin with a covered valve that would open and flush waste away with water from a cistern after pulling a lever. It’s worth noting that the Metamorphosis of Ajax is less a technical manuscript than a barbed and saucy political manuscript. (It’s said Queen Elizabeth I banished Harington from her court after reading his work. But not, however, before Harington was able to install one of these early flushing toilets in the homes of a few friends-including the Queen herself.)