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Where We Came From...

Feb. 12, 2020
The plumbing trade, not as we know it but basically, began way back in the dawn of civilization.

First, if you are in business today, congratulations! If you’ve been in business for three years or more, you deserve a gold star along with congratulations! You’ve beaten the odds and succeeded in a cutthroat, dog eat dog industry that is in the throes of an identity crisis the likes of which it, or the world, has never seen. That might sound a bit hyperbolic, but is it, really? 

With that firmly in mind, consider this; the plumbing trade, not as we know it but basically, began way back in the dawn of civilization. Before the Roman and Greeks there were the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Before them, the Egyptians, the Phonecians and other civilizations both known, and as yet unknown, going back beyond 10,000 years ago. Some say, using the ruins of Gobekli Tepi as a yardstick, as far back a 15,000 to 20,000 years. At some point in our early conversion to agrarian societies, the importance of clean water and waste disposal became obvious.

Starting with the simple and obvious, “don’t drink downstream from the herd” caveat, the simple acts of day-to-day existence dictated that people be aware of their needs and what could happen if those needs were not properly policed. In some early farming societies, like the Mayan empire, there were rituals that the entire village took part in on a regular basis, wherein everyone came and burned their household waste in areas that, today, would be called “garbage dumps” on a predetermined day. This was done as a necessity, but turned into a quasi-religious exercise, to make sure that everyone participated.

At some point in the development of society, individuals were either appointed, or simply took on, the role of keeping clean water and human waste separate and tending to each by whatever devices they invented to keep the two apart. These individuals developed an expertise that, at some point became recognized by their neighbors and probably the village elders as well. Considering the known importance of the work to the health of the community, these people either were appointed to continue or were conscripted. The skills and expertise were developed in response to what became obvious; contaminated water made people sick. Human detritus, including fecal, animal and vegetable residues were odious and unpleasant... and accumulated at a rapid rate when humans lived in close proximity to one another. So was born, in my opinion, the plumbing trade.

Although we take our name from the Latin word for lead (plumbum), because Roman Empire plumbers (27 B.C. through 476 A.D.) worked with lead piping the trade, as such, began much earlier. In the palace at Knossos on the island of Crete during the Minoan civilization some 4,000 years ago, there have been found not only sanitary and roof drainage systems made with clay pipe, but bathtubs that had hot and cold running water! Somebody had to plumb those systems, and it flourished for quite a while, reaching its peak during the Roman epoch.

The trade languished during the Dark Ages (476 A.D. to 1453 A.D.), and the lessons learned by preceding civilizations about sanitation were lost. The loss came with cataclysmic consequences culminating with the Bubonic Plague and moving along with Typhus, Dysentery, Cholera, Hepatitus A and many other illnesses. They weren’t called the “Dark Ages” for nothing!   Think about that for a minute! For a thousand years, the light of civilization flickered, as humans reverted to their lowest common denominator, virtually starting society from scratch! I would argue that, in addition to the barbarism of the times, the lack of proper plumbing and sanitation was a significant contributing factor.

As the era of enlightenment began, the Renaissance, the imperative of rebuilding a society where people could live and work together for their common good, or the good of their overlords came to the fore, and with that imperative came the need for properly engineering villages, towns and cities, and their infrastructure which included water and waste disposal. Plumbing and the practitioners of the trade became important members of society.

Eventually, in Europe, guilds were formed. The trade was codified, rules were promulgated for the teaching of the trade. The course of study for apprenticeship, the graduation into journeyman and finally the master designation were set down. It actually became a crime, punishable by physical torture and excommunication from the craft, to reveal “trade secrets”!

In the last 500 or so years, our trade has undergone many identity changes. In the last fifty years the pace of change has been staggering. The advent of new materials, new skills required to install and service them and the intercession of “government control” of the trade have combined to change the landscape of the modern-day plumbing business and plumbers as well.

With all of that, the skills needed to continue our trade into the future are the same, if slightly modified. Water still flows downhill and seeks its own level. Gases still respond to Newtonian physics. Systems for delivering liquids (both hot and cold), gases and solid waste are still the center of any project requiring habitable space by humans. Yes, convenience has taken the place of practicality in a lot of ways, but the basics still remain.

What has changed and what, in my humble opinion, is the biggest challenge faced by the trade since the dark ages, is that society seems to have lost not only the lessons of the past as regards the skilled trades, but the reason that they exist in the first place.

There is an old story about ol’ Charlie the retired steam locomotive engineer, who is called out of retirement because the company can’t fix one of their older locomotives. Seems that the engine just won’t go. Charlie walks around the old behemoth for a few minutes, listening tapping and scratching his chin. Finally. He grabs a five-pound sledge hammer and whacks the iron beast once. They start the engine up and it purrs like a contented kitten as it steams out of the yard, back to work. Charlie gives his bill to the powers that be—and they are incensed!!!  “Why should we pay you $5,000 dollars for hitting that old loco once with a sledge-hammer?” they stammered. “Well,” says Charlie, “it was only $5 for the hit with the hammer, but it is $4,995.00 for knowin’ where!”

Now that story may seem comical, but when a large building in one of America’s largest cities has to replace their heating system because they cannot find anyone who knows how to fix their older, but quite serviceable, existing heating system, we have crossed the Rubicon. Where are we going?  Next month...

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a third-generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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