Posted on

Joseph Bramah: Inventor Extraordinaire

Scarcely any thing was talked of the whole day, or next morning, but their visit to Rosings. Mr Collins was carefully instructing them in what they were to expect, that the sight of such rooms, so many servants, and so splendid a dinner might not wholly overpower them. When the ladies were separating for the toilette, he said to Elizabeth,

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin, about your apparel. Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us, which becomes herself and daughter. I would advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest, there is no occasion for any thing more.
Pride and Prejudice

Joseph Bramah (April 13, 1748 – December 9, 1814), born Stainborough Lane Farm, Wentworth, Yorkshire, England. He was an inventor and locksmith. He is best known for having invented the hydraulic press. Along with William George Armstrong, he can be considered one of the two fathers of hydraulic engineering.

Bramah was the second son in the family of three sons and two daughters of Joseph Bramma (note the different spelling of the surname), a farmer, and his wife, Mary Denton. He was educated at the local school in Silkstone and on leaving school he was apprenticed to a local carpenter. On completing his apprenticeship he moved to London, where he started work as a cabinet-maker. In 1783 he married Mary Lawton of Mapplewell, near Barnsley, and the couple set up home in London. They subsequently had a daughter and four sons.

The couple first of all lived at 124 Picadilly, but later moved to Eaton Street, Pimlico.

His first successful invention whilst in London was an improved water closet. He found that the current model of water closet being installed in London houses had a tendency to freeze in cold weather. He designed a new model in which the usual slide valve was replaced by a hinged flap that sealed the bottom of the bowl. He obtained a patent for his design in 1778 and began making water closets at a workshop in Denmark Street, St Giles The design was a success and production continued well into the 19th century.

His original water closets are still working in Osbourne House, Queen Victoria’s home on the Isle of Wight.

After attending some lectures on technical aspects of locks, Bramah, designed a lock of his own. He received a patent for his new lock in 1784. As a result, Bramah started the Bramah Locks company at 124 Picadilly. which survives today.

The locks produced by his company were famed for their resistance to lock picking and tampering, the company famously had a “Challenge Lock” which was displayed in the window of their London shop from 1790 mounted on a board containing the inscription:

The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced.

The challenge stood for over 60 years until, at the Great Exhibition of 1851 an American locksmith by the name of Alfred Charles Hobbs was able to open the lock and, following some argument about the circumstances under which he had opened it, was awarded the prize. Hobbs attempt still took him some 51 hours, spread over 16 days.

The Challenge Lock is in the Science Museum in London. An examination of the lock shows that it has been rebuilt since Hobbs picked it, originally it had 18 iron slides and 1 central spring. It was rebuilt to have 13 steel slides, each with its own spring.

Bramah received a second patent for a lock design in 1798.

Partly due to the precision requirements of his locks, Bramah spent a lot of his time developing tools to assist him in various manufacturing processes. He relied heavily on the expertise of Henry Maudslay whom he employed in his workshop from the age of 18. Between them they created a number of innovative machines that made the production of Bramah’s locks more efficient, but which were also applicable to other fields of manufacture.

Just before Bramah died, his workshops also employed Joseph Clement who among other things made several contributions in the field of lathe design.

Bramah’s most important invention was the hydraulic press. The hydraulic press depends on Pascal’s principle, that pressure throughout a closed system is constant. The press had two cylinders and pistons of differing cross-sectional areas. If a force was exerted on the smaller piston, this would be translated into a larger force on the larger piston. The difference in the two forces would be proportional to the difference in area of the two pistons. In effect the cylinders act in a similar way that a lever is used to increase the force exerted. Bramah was granted a patent for his hydraulic press in 1795.

Bramah’s hydraulic press turned out to have many industrial applications and still does to this day. At the time hydraulic engineering was an almost unknown science, and Bramah (with William George Armstrong) was one of the two pioneers in this field.

The hydraulic press is still known as the Bramah Press after its inventor.

Bramah was a very prolific inventor. Not all of his inventions were as important as his hydraulic press. They included: a beer engine (1797), a planing machine (1802), a paper-making machine (1805), a machine for automatically printing bank notes with sequential serial numbers (1806), and a fountain pen (1809).

Bramah died at Pimlico on 9 December 1814 after catching a cold which turned to pneumonia. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Paddington.

Posted on

The Develeopment of Regency Plumbing

Contrary to popular belief, bathing and sanitation were not a lost practice with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Soapmaking first became an established trade during the Early Middle Ages. Also, contrary to myth, chamberpots were not disposed of out the window and into streets in the Middle Ages — this was instead a Roman practice. Bathing in fact did not fall out of fashion until shortly after the Renaissance, replaced with the heavy use of sweat-bathing and perfume, as it was thought that water could carry disease into the body through the skin. Modern sanitation was not widely adopted until the 19th and 20th centuries.

The bathtub’s modern spouse, the toilet, had problems gaining acceptance. Sir John Harington invented the first flushing toilet for himself and for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, in 1596. When Harington published a book describing his invention, he was roundly chided by peers, embarrassing him to the point of retirement from plumbing. His two toilets were the only ones he ever produced. The next water closet would not be seen for 200 years when it was introduced by Alexander Cummings in 1775. This event would mark the very beginnings of the modern bathroom.

This is not to say that toilets, or indeed bathrooms were common fixtures in Regency homes. They were very much the exception to the rule, owned by only a very few more forward thinking, wealthy elite. More common in Austen’s day would have been the chamber pot, conveniently stored under the bed and privy or outhouse located somewhere outside, away from the home. Popular wisdom held that lilacs planted by the outhouse would disguise the smell– at least for a few weeks while they were in bloom—and if you see a stand of lilacs in the middle of a field with nothing else around it, you can take a good guess as to what used to be there!

The word “toilet” came to be used in English along with other French fashions. It originally referred to the toile, French for “cloth”, draped over a lady or gentleman’s shoulders whilst their hair was being dressed, and then (in both French and English) by extension to the various elements, and also the whole complex of operations of hairdressing and body care that centered at a dressing table, also covered by a cloth, on which stood a mirror and various brushes and containers for powder and make-up: this ensemble was also a toilette, as also was the period spent at the table, during which close friends or tradesmen were often received.

These various senses are first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionaryin rapid sequence in the later 17th century: the set of “articles required or used in dressing” 1662, the “action or process of dressing” 1681, the cloth on the table 1682, the cloth round the shoulders 1684, the table itself 1695, and the “reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet” 1703 (also known as a “toilet-call”), but in the sense of a special room the earliest use is 1819, and this does not seem to include a lavatory.

Through the 18th century, everywhere in the English-speaking world, these various uses centred around a lady’s draped dressing-table remained dominant. In the 19th century, apparently first in the United States, the word was adapted as a genteel euphemism for the room and the object as we know them now, perhaps following the French usage cabinet de toilette, much as powder-room may be coyly used today, and this has been linked to the introduction of public toilets, for example on railway trains, which required a plaque on the door. The original usages have become obsolete, and the table has become a dressing-table.

The origin of the (chiefly British) term loo is unknown. According to the OED, the etymology is obscure, but it might derive from the word Waterloo. The first recorded entry is in fact from James Joyce’s Ulysses(1922): “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset”.

Invention timeline

As with many inventions, the flush toilet did not suddenly spring into existence, but was the result of a long chain of minor improvements. Therefore, instead of a single name and date, there follows a list of significant contributors to the history of the device.

  • circa 30th century BC: A primitive dual channel, fresh water and waste, toilet system was in use in the houses at Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland
  • circa 26th century BC: Flush toilets were first used in the Indus Valley Civilization. The cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had a flush toilet in almost every house, attached to a sophisticated sewage system.
  • circa 18th century BC: Flush toilet constructed at Knossos on Minoan Crete
  • circa 15th century BC: Flush toilets used in the Minoan city of Akrotiri.
  • 1st to 5th centuries AD: Flush toilets were used throughout the Roman Empire. Some examples include those at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the technology was lost in the West.
  • 1596: Sir John Harington is said to have invented ‘The Ajax’, a forerunner to the modern flush toilet, for Elizabeth I of England, who wouldn’t use the contraption because it made too much noise. His design was ridiculed in England, but was adopted in France under the name Angrez. The design had a flush valve to let water out of the tank, and a wash-down design to empty the bowl.
  • 1738: A valve-type flush toilet was invented by J. F. Brondel.
  • 1775: Alexander Cummings invented the S-trap (British patent no. 814?), still in use today, which uses standing water to seal the outlet of the bowl, preventing the escape of foul air from the sewer. His design had a sliding valve in the bowl outlet above the trap.
  • 1777: Samuel Prosser invented and patented the ‘plunger closet’.
  • 1778: Joseph Bramah invented a hinged valve or ‘crank valve’ that sealed the bottom of the bowl, and a float valve system for the flush tank. His design was used mainly on boats.
  • 1819: Albert Giblin received British patent 4990 for the “Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer”, a siphon discharge system.
  • 1852: J. G. Jennings invented a wash-out design with a shallow pan emptying into an S- trap.
  • 1857: The first American patent for a toilet, the ‘plunger closet’, was granted.
  • 1860: The first watercloset installed on the European continent was imported from England. It was installed in the rooms of Queen Victoria in castle Ehrenburg (Coburg, Germany); she was the only one who was allowed to use it.
  • The first popularized water closets were exhibited at The Crystal Palace and these became the first public toilets. They had attendants dressed in white and customers were charged a penny for use. This is the origin of the phrase “To spend a penny”.
  • 1880s: Thomas Crapper’s plumbing company built flush toilets of Giblin’s design. After the company received a royal warrant, Crapper’s name became synonymous with flush toilets. Although he was not the original inventor, Crapper popularized the siphon system for emptying the tank, replacing the earlier floating valve system which was prone to leaks. Some of Crapper’s designs were made by Thomas Twyford. The similarity between Crapper’s name and the much older word for excrement is merely a coincidence.
  • 1885: Thomas Twyford built the first one-piece china toilet using the flush-out siphon design by J. G. Jennings.
  • 1886: An early jet flush toilet was manufactured by the Beaufort Works in Chelsea, England.
  • 1906: William Elvis Sloan invents the Flushometer, which uses pressurized water directly from the supply line for faster recycle time between flushes. The original Royal Flushometer is still in use today in public restrooms worldwide.
  • 1980: Bruce Thompson, working for Caroma in Australia, developed the Duoset cistern with two buttons and two flush volumes as a water-saving measure. Modern versions of the Duoset are now available in more than 30 countries worldwide, and save the average household 67% of their normal water usage.

From Wikipedia, the online Encyclopedia

Enjoyed this article? Browse our book shop at