Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 846:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 846.

Today, an Elizabethan poet invents a most remarkable metaphor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Sir John Harington's father had first been married to the illegitimate daughter of King Henry VIII. But Harington was born to his father's second wife. So he missed being Queen Elizabeth's nephew, and Elizabeth assumed the role of Godmother to young John Harington.

The high-spirited Harington had easy natural wit. He was a fine poet. In his mid-twenties he translated the story of Gioconda -- the raciest part of Ariosto's epic poem, Orlando Furioso. He was probably trying to impress the ladies of Elizabeth's court.

Trouble was, the Gioconda story sounded a little like Elizabeth's marital negotiations with European monarchs. She angrily ordered a very odd punishment. She suspended Harington -- sent him home. He was not to return until he'd finished translating the entire work of almost 40,000 lines.

So he went home and worked. In 1591 he produced a loose English adaptation of Orlando Furioso. It's still the best known translation today. That time in the penalty box hadn't cured him. Five years later he was in hot water again.

This time he'd written another book, titled A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. It turns out that the word jakes was Elizabethan slang for a privy. Ajax was code for "a jakes." Harington had done a discourse on the design of toilets -- and on obscenity.

The book is loaded with double meaning and literary allusion. On one level, it asks us to recognize true obscenity. Harington's biographer, D.H. Craig, sums up Harington's moral:

... the truly dangerous sinners are those who deny the animal side of humanity and disguise it with finery.

On another level, Harington transcended his own literary gaming to describe the mechanical design of the first flush toilets -- devices he'd actually installed in fancy country houses. Indeed, he'd even equipped the Queen herself with one.

Our modern flush toilets have three elements. A valve in the bottom of the water closet, a wash-down system, and a feedback controller to meter the next supply of wash-down water. Harington had invented the first two -- the valve and wash-down system.

The Ajax book is an unrelenting assault on hypocrisy. The invention of the flush toilet changed life as we know it, but for its inventor it was only a metaphor. When you stop and think about it, all our inventions are metaphors. Automobiles are metaphors for motion. Clocks are metaphors for planetary rotation. Harington's flush toilet was a metaphor for a clean spirit. In the end he wishes readers would, and I quote,

find [an equally sure] way to cleanse, and keep sweete, the noblest part of themselves, ...
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
(Theme music)

Craig, D.H., Sir John Harington. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Rich, T., Harington & Ariosto: A Study in Elizabethan Verse Translation. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.

Elliott, C.D., Technics and Architecture: The Development of Materials and Systems for Buildings. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992, Chapter 9, "Sanitation."

For more on the history of the toilet see Episodes 157 and 1289.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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