Toilets and Sewers Just Took Forever for People to Buy Into

The first flushing toilets were invented in the 1500s, and the first “s” shape modern ones were invented in the mid-1700s. A sewer system to connect them to, and the typical person using them instead of dumping a bucket into a cesspit, took until the mid-1800s.

It took multiple major cholera epidemics, and, more importantly, The Great Stink of London making the Parliament building smell bad, to convince London to adopt the technology. And, after that, the rest of the world.

One issue, for example, is miasma (bad airs) theory, the thought that airs created disease. By that thinking, connecting your home directly to public sewers seems like a bad idea. Add to that the problem of people still having cesspits that they connected to their new flush toilets to making poo-flooding a regular issue, and fear of the poor masses misusing or breaking them.

Sewer gas was a big problem in the nineteenth century when knowledge of how to trap the gas and prevent its return back into homes and city streets was scarce and workmanship in sewer construction often cheap and shoddy. Because of this at least one town in England, Manchester, converted from water-carriage to ‘the apparently safer and more effective dry conservancy method.’ A letter writer to the Herald argued: 
A well sewered town may be described as supplied with a system of subterranean retorts, so arranged that the fluids in passing give off the largest volume of gases, which are carefully collected, and then by means of chimney pipes (for house drains serve admirably that purpose), conducted into the very heart of the dwellings.


The introduction of flushing toilets exacerbated the problem. The new toilets were gradually replacing the old chamber pots and used far more water. As a result more waste was being poured into the 200,000 cesspits that stored the capital’s sanitation. The cesspits would frequently overspill, contaminating the water supply and running human excrement into the Thames.


By the 1840s, London faced a sanitation crisis. One summer the stench of the Thames drove Parliament to soak their curtains in lime, an experience that led to funding for a modern sewer system.

China Almost Beat Europe to Being the World’s Colonial Superpower

Zheng He’s treasure fleet was world history’s largest fleet, built of the largest wooden ships ever built, far more advanced than European ships were for centuries. It set off in the late 15th century, just as Europe was taking its first colonial steps, and set up trading relationships as far as Africa.

After Zheng He died, though, conservative isolationist factions in the Imperial Court took control and slashed funding when it was decided that barbarian civilizations outside China had nothing worthwhile to offer. The whole operation was shut down, innovation into ocean navigation was stopped, ocean-going ships were made illegal, all the ships were destroyed, and all the records were destroyed.

Within a century, Europe overtook China, and ocean navigation technology was set back significantly. This was arguably the turning point where China – the dominant civilization of the medieval era (inventing gunpowder, compasses, and silk, for example) – turned inward and stopped being the center of world innovation. 

Image By User:Vmenkov (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The conservative Confucian faction now had the upper hand. In its worldview, it was improper to go abroad while one’s parents were still alive. “Barbarian” nations were seen as offering little of value to add to the prosperity already present in the Middle Kingdom.
The renovation of the massive Grand Canal in 1411 offered a quicker and safer route for transporting grain than along the coast, so the demand for oceangoing vessels plummeted.


The Ming court was divided into many factions, most sharply into the pro-expansionist voices led by the powerful eunuch factions that had been responsible for the policies supporting Zheng Ho’s voyages, and more traditional conservative Confucian court advisers who argued for frugality. […] By the century’s end, ships could not be built with more than two masts, and in 1525 the government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships. The greatest navy in history, which once had 3,500 ships (the U.S. Navy today has only 324), was gone.


The 1400s were all China’s. Or at least they could have been, had the country not suddenly turned inward. There are many theories as to why China curtailed its maritime aspirations in the mid-15th century. The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. Barbarian nations were thought to offer little of value to China.,8599,2054421,00.html

A Corrupt Patent Official Indirectly Stifled Telephone Adoption for Two Decades

Alexander Bell is famous for being the inventor of the telephone. Less known is that he invented it at the same time as a totally different guy, Elisha Gray.

However, Bell had an edge: the patent examiner owed a debt to Bell’s attorney. As soon as Gray’s patent arrived, one of Bell’s lawyers (who had been sitting on the patent for arcane international patent law reasons) was mysteriously tipped off and delivered Bell’s patent as well. Then, while Gray’s patent sat in a pile, Bell’s got timestamped immediately.

The resulting monopoly and ridiculous phone rates charged by Bell limited adoption of phones by 1894 to only 250,000 phones. Bell’s company didn’t see widespread consumer adoption as a priority.

As soon as the patent expired, phone adoption expanded 12 times more in 10 years than they did in double that time under Bell. While it seems no one asked Grey how he’d do it differently, he couldn’t have been more aggressive than Bell, whose company ignored expansion in favor of low-cost city centers and refused to connect independent providers until competition forced them to. And Grey’s 70 other inventions, including one (used mostly by banks) that lets people sign things remotely, didn’t suffer from the same bottlenecking.

Imagine the U.S. during the 20th century if its communication revolution had happened 20 years earlier. Then feel free to make Alexander Bell as hated by the Internet as his contemporary, Edison.

Bell and his partners almost surely got inside information and favorable treatment from the patent examiner, who was in deep debt to Bell’s attorney. By March 1874, when Bell famously did succeed in transmitting speech and summoning his assistant Watson, his supposed invention resembled not his original patent but that of his rival Gray, who—by virtue of that time-stamp—Bell had beaten to the patent office by hours.
[quote]Bell Telephone’s monopoly stifled the growth of phone service. There were 250,000 phones in the United States when the company’s monopoly ended. Five years later, by 1899, the number was over one million—and in the following five-year intervals the numbers leaped to three million and seven million.


Service was provided by use of iron wire or on grounded circuits with a local battery power source’ 3 and was directed to customers located within a mile of the wire center. Since central offices were usually located in the center of a large urban community’s business-industrial area, residential, suburban, and rural service went largely undeveloped. Public relations were usually ignored during the patent monopoly period while the System concentrated on reaping large profits. As later assessed by the FCC, “the System’s attitude toward the public was characterized by arrogance and indifference.”

Mismanagement Killed NYC’s First Electric Car Cab Company (Over 100 Years Ago)

Around 1900, there was a giant company called “The Electric Vehicle Company,” with over 2000 electric vehicles in operation,mostly in NYC.

The company spread out into Boston, NJ, Newport, and even Chicago. While the range of the batteries was awful for America’s sprawl, they did just fine in major cities where they could operate out of hubs and swap out batteries to recharge.

Most sites out there blame gasoline and automatic starters for making electric cars less viable in the 1920s and 30s, but electric cars were already dead for 20 years at that point (since around 1900). The company was acquired by people who overvalued the company stock, expanded too rapidly to maintain to drive up the stock price, and undercut all R&D and maintenance to cut costs. The company collapsed under poor management and gave electric cars a bad name. Ford moved into gasoline cars, made the Model T, and the rest is history.

We don’t know if electric cars would’ve taken off with more investment, but the chance to find out was killed right then.

In New York the service remained profitable, but the other cities suffered from poor management and operations. The batteries were not properly cared for, nor were the drivers trained well.
Automotive historians of the 1950s have tended to see the problems as simply the gurgling death cries of an electric vehicle industry being taken out by the insurgent gasoline-powered car; they see the death of the EVC as a demonstration of the technological impracticality of the battery-powered vehicle. But contemporary historians like Gijs Mom and David Kirsch have taken the company more seriously. Kirsch sees the scheme, if not the actual company, as “the seed of an alternative transportation system for motorized road transport.”

Electric Vehicle eventually issued more than $20 million in stock, with authorization for an additional $80 million in the various regional companies under its umbrella. With such intense dilution, especially for a company making modest profits, only a huge success would make public shareholders any money. Whitney and the rest, of course, had awarded themselves enormous blocks of stock, for which they had paid nothing, and they could sell at the very moment the speculative fervor that they had stoked was most intense.
The only way to make the venture succeed, then, was through continued innovation, […] just the sort of things at which Isaac Rice had proved particularly adept.
But the Whitney team did not buy into electric vehicles to laboriously improve on an emerging technology. They were interested only in the sort of rapid expansion that could lead to an equally rapid and profitable turnover.

The Guy Who Inventer Copying Machines Couldn’t Sell Water to a Drowning Man

Chester Carlson invented Xerography. As in Xerox machines/copiers. They aren’t the sexiest of inventions, but trillions of copies are made a year for a good reason. The modern world couldn’t exist without them.

Yet, between 1938 and 1944, over 20 groups turned down his invention, saying they just didn’t get it, including IBM and the US Navy. He finally lucked his way into finding a small company in Rochester NY that was interested, and what would become Xerox was born.

The invention was so out of the blue and unique at its time (most attempts at copying were using chemical photography) that if Carlson was just a little less lucky, his crappy salesmanship could’ve made modern offices continue using hand-copying for decades.

“Electrophotography had practically no foundation in previous scientific work. Chet put together a rather odd lot of phenomena, each of which was obscure in itself and none of which had previously been related in anyone’s thinking. The result was the biggest thing in imaging since the coming of photography itself. Furthermore, he did it entirely without the help of a favorable scientific climate. There are dozens of instances of simultaneous discovery down through scientific history, but no one came anywhere near being simultaneous with Chet. I’m as amazed by his discovery now as I was when I first heard of it.”
— Dr. Harold E. Clark, Battelle Memorial Institute, New Yorker, 1967

The road to Carlson’s success—or that for xerography’s success—had been long and filled with failure. He was turned down for funding by more than twenty companies between 1939 and 1944. He tried for some time to sell the invention to International Business Machines (IBM), the great vendor of office equipment, but no one at the company saw merit in the concept—it is not clear that anyone at IBM even ‘understood’ the concept. His next-to-last attempt to garner the interest—and funds—he needed to commercialize the physics was a meeting with the Department of the Navy. The Navy had a specific interest in the production of dry copies, but they did not “see” what Carlson saw.

Carlson obtained the first of many patents for the xerographic process and tried unsuccessfully to interest someone in developing and marketing his invention. More than 20 companies turned him down. Finally, in 1944, he persuaded Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio, a nonprofit industrial research organization, to undertake developmental work. In 1947 a small firm in Rochester, N.Y., the Haloid Company (later the Xerox Corporation), obtained the commercial rights to xerography, and 11 years later Xerox introduced its first office copier.

The King of England Defeated by Coffee Houses

It is probably no coincidence that technology leaped forward in the exact moment and location that Western civilization moved from constantly drinking beer all day to drinking coffee. Coffee houses share responsibility for huge social change and exchange of ideas in early modern England and America.

This didn’t sit well with more conservative elements in the country (and the excluded women), who spread rumors that coffee caused impotence and poisoned people. These were seized upon by an insecure King Charles II, who was anxious about all these folks of different social classes starting to sober up and talk together, and he announced a ban prohibiting selling coffee (or tea, chocolate, or sorbet).

This proved unenforceable and caused mass uproar, and he backed off in a matter of days, settling for regulation instead.

“Charles II issued a proclamation … on the grounds that coffeehouses attracted idle and disaffected personas and spawned false, malicious, and scandalous reports to the defamation of His Majesty’s Government,” and that coffeehouses were to be closed. This caused an uproar, worse than that which had the potential to arise from coffeehouse chat, and the proclamation failed. To resolve the conflict, coffeehouse owners became subject to rules and regulations agreed upon by both the regime and the houses. While the government implemented these regulations, their enforcement was difficult and power remained with the people.

Detractors condemned it as a dangerous foreign substance, contributing to corruption and even impotence in Englishmen. More concerning to those in power, coffee houses had quickly become gathering places for people to share news and, perhaps, spread sedition.

His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) Put down and Suppressed, and doth (with the Advice of His Privy Council) by this His Royal Proclamation, Strictly Charge and Command all manner of persons, That they or any of them do not presume from and after the Tenth Day of January next ensuing, to keep any Publick Coffee-house, or to Utter or sell by retail, in his, her or their house or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same) any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, as they will answer the contrary at their utmost perils.

Antivaxxers Go Back to the Beginning of Vaccines

Despite the idea that Andrew Wakefield invented antivaxxing with his debunked Autism studies in the 90s, antivaxxers have been around since the beginning, starting riots and challenging vaccine laws across the US and the UK.

For example, in 1885, in Leicester, an anti-vaccine protest of 100,000 people and anti-vaccine lobbying led to a royal commission investigating vaccines. While the commission didn’t outright remove the vaccine laws in England, they did strip the penalties and allowed parents to exempt their kids if they didn’t believe in vaccines (where the phrase “conscientious objector” comes from, by the way).

These exemptions finally culminated in the end of compulsory vaccinations in the UK altogether in the 20th century.

After a massive anti-vaccination demonstration in Leicester in 1885 that attracted up to 100,000 people, a royal commission was appointed to investigate the anti-vaccination grievances as well as to hear evidence in favour of vaccination.
as a gesture to the anti-vaccinationists it recommended the abolition of cumulative penalties. A new Vaccination Act in 1898 removed cumulative penalties and introduced a conscience clause, allowing parents who did not believe vaccination was efficacious or safe to obtain a certificate of exemption. This act introduced the concept of the “conscientious objector” into English law.

The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was linked to autism in a Lancet paper. 
The 1998 paper has since been discredited, but immunisation rates have dropped in recent years. 
To provide protection for the whole community the rate must be 95%. However, last year it was 83% for the UK. 
This has led to fears that children in the UK are vulnerable to a mass outbreak of measles.

The Worst Possible Person Discovered Medical Handwashing

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that women in childbirth attended by doctors died a lot more than women attended by midwives. His subsequent investigations inspired him to introduce sanitizing and hand washing to his clinic.

Unfortunately, he had awful social skills, and all of his peers hated him. First, he refused to publish any of his findings because his ideas were “self-evident.” Meanwhile, he neglected his job and berated his bosses, pissing them off too much to listen to him.

When he finally did publish – 13 years later – he was unsurprisingly spurned. Finally, after some mental deterioration, he was lured to an insane asylum and was beaten while trying to escape. He died from the wounds.

His shenanigans cost 21 more years of people dying from unwashed hands in hospitals (the tens of thousands of soldiers who died of infected wounds in the American Civil War, for example).

A remarkably difficult man, Semmelweis refused to publish his ”self-evident” findings until 13 years after making them despite being urged to do so repeatedly by those who supported him. To make matters worse, he hurled outrageously rude insults to some of the hospital’s most powerful doctors who deigned to question his ideas. Such outbursts, no matter how well deserved, never go unnoticed, let alone unpunished, in the staid halls of academic medicine.
Becoming more shrill and angry at each detractor’s critique, Semmelweis lost his clinical appointment at the Vienna General Hospital and in 1850 abruptly left for his native Budapest without even telling his closest colleagues. In 1861, he finally published his work…

This is the story of a man whose ideas could have saved a lot of lives and spared countless numbers of women and newborns’ feverish and agonizing deaths.
You’ll notice I said “could have.”
And Semmelweis was not very tactful. He publicly berated people who disagreed with him and made some influential enemies.


Our best evidence indicates that guards beat him trying to escape an insane asylum, leaving lethal injuries and infected wounds

In the light of the principles of social marketing today, his major error was that he imposed a system change (the use of the chlorinated lime solution) without consulting the opinion of his collaborators.