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Automatic flushing toilets


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(Picture: Black Country Living Museum)


The ‘tipper’ or ‘tippler’ closet, invented by Burnley man James Duckett and first produced in 1887, addressed two issues associated with earlier water closets: they required a good supply of water, and they relied on users remembering to flush. This example is in the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. 

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(Picture: Diagram reproduced from Bogs, Baths & Basins by David J Eveleigh)


Duckett’s ‘tipper’ closets could be installed in various configurations. This one shows the tipper tank (A), with a typical capacity of three gallons (13.5L), filled with ‘slops’ (greywater) from the sink in a scullery or kitchen; sitting in a corner of the yard, it can also receive rainwater. When full, it tilts (B), sending the water along a drain to flush waste from the ‘annular basin’ (D) beneath the privy (E) through a water trap (P) and on to the sewer. In one alternative set-up, the tipper tank was part of a single unit alongside the pedestal.


Duckett claimed in his patent application in 1887 that his system was ‘much superior to the ordinary method of flushing water closets as it is not dependent in any way on the care and cleanliness of the person using the closet’. Tipper closets were installed widely in the 1890s and early 20th century, mostly in backyard privies of terraced houses in Lancashire and Yorkshire.


The water-saving benefits of this design are clear. But it reflected a bias about the working-class folk for whom it was intended – that they couldn’t be trusted to flush their closets manually.

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(Picture: Science Museum Group, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


And it was far from perfect. As the flush entered far below the seat, any dirt that soiled the inside of the pedestal wasn’t cleaned off. The water trap was hard to reach and maintain. The noise of an unexpected flush beneath the seat could be quite alarming to anyone sitting on the pedestal – particularly in designs where the tipper tank was directly behind the seat, as in this version. And grease, food waste and other materials that were often washed down a sink outlet could clog up the pipework.


In short, the idea was innovative – but its popularity didn’t prove to be long-lasting. Still, designers continue to look for ways to provide hygienic toilets that don’t require a consistent water supply to keep clean. Grey water – that is, water that’s already been used, for example in washing – is used to flush toilets in many modern systems designed for such places. 

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