A story addressing current events from almost 200 years ago, by Mick Murton
The date was June 5th, 1867. It was a foggy Wednesday afternoon in Victorian London. All throughout the streets you could see the usual assortment of tea-sipping dandies and meat salesmen going about their daily business while the women rolled expensive cigars for railroad tycoons- all in all, nothing out of the ordinary. At London Harbor, however, something unusual awaited.
Offshore in the harbor, large curtains covered an area that had been restricted from the public eye. For months workers labored- welding, tightening bolts, pouring concrete, fitting pipes, and doing all sorts of work that left the people of London wondering just what in the blazes was going on. Lately, thick black clouds of smoke and puffs of steam started erupting from behind the curtains, and the sound of running water could be heard. Was it another ship? Nobody knew, but today they would find out.
On the shore, a viewing area had been set up. Ordinary people stood, staring in awe, wondering what could be happening beneath the massive curtained area. They were promised to be shown a feat of engineering unlike anything they had ever seen, and it was certainly a big deal- rising above the crowd was a grandstand filled with high class socialites, nobles, even members of the Royal Family and Queen Victoria herself. This was a crowd that could not have been gathered except for one purpose- to view the latest engineering feat of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man famous throughout the British Empire as one of its greatest engineers. After the launch of the Great Eastern- an oceangoing steamship deemed impractical due to its sheer massive size- Isambard had disappeared for a few years, but today he returned to unveil what he claimed to be his greatest work ever. Most historical accounts state that Brunel had died shortly after the launch of this ship due to stress related illness, but the truth is far stranger.
On a stage just outside of the restricted area, built just for this event, he stood waiting. At 2:00 sharp, he stood tall and cleared his throat. All eyes were upon him. “Behold,” he began, “my greatest creation of all time!” He walked over to a decorative rope and gave it a tug…
July 4th, 1864. Brunel, in his workshop, dips his fountain pen into an inkwell and begins maniacally scribbling out more designs. His assistant, William Livingston Murton- a relative of mine- watches dumbfounded. He picks up a discarded sheet of paper and attempts to interpret the madly scribbled technical drawing.
“What’sis, guv?” asks William. Brunel stops scribbling, startled. A single bead of sweat drips down his forehead. Heart racing, he takes his handkerchief and wipes his brow.
“Schematics, William. We’ve gone over this.”
“But this don’t look much like a ship, Izzy.” William squints and turns the paper a few ways.
“It’s not a ship!” Brunel roars, slamming his work desk with both fists. The inkwell jumps, splashing drops of ink on an unused section of the paper. He pauses to be sure that the ink isn’t going to spread, then resumes his drawing.
“What is it, then?”
“My greatest work yet, William. Something so large, so powerful… By the beard of Thor, the world has never seen anything like it!”
“Looks like a swimming pool, innit?” Brunel chuckled.
“No no no, my dear boy. What you see here is no pool. I have a plan to build something of such great utility that every city in the world will be clamoring to buy one from me!”
William simply stood there, mouth agape.
“Aren’t you going to ask what it is?”
“A machine that lets people talk to one another across long distances?” asked William. Brunel shook his head.
“Stupid boy, such a thing would never work. This is going to be the world’s largest toilet!” He grabbed a series of rolled up documents from a holder behind him and rolled them out before his assistant.
“How powerful is it, guv?”
“Powerful enough to change the world,” said Brunel. “And I have to finish it soon, before that fool Robert Stephenson finishes his.” (In truth, Robert Stephenson had no plans to build such a thing.)
“Yours will be bigger?”
“Yes,” Brunel stated confidently. “If I know Stephenson, he will be using locomotive engines. We’re using something much more powerful.”
“What in the blazes are you- No William, steamship engines! By the Crown of Britannia, what do I keep you around for?” William had no answer for that.
Back in the present day, Isambard Kingdom Brunel gave the rope hanging from his cordoned-off work area a strong pull. “Behold!” he roared, as the curtains dropped off from around his greatest work yet. The crowd gasped in awe.
“Good heavens!” a nobleman declared, his monocle falling to the ground. His wife fainted in her seat next to him.
In the front row, a commoner leaned in to the man next to him. “It looks like a big ol’ toilet, innit?” And indeed it was- standing at over 300 meters tall and made of steel reinforced concrete, this was in fact the largest and most powerful toilet ever built.
Thick black smoke poured from smokestacks in the boiler column behind the toilet. Having been burning all day, the steam pressure was finally sufficient to drive the engines. Massive steam pistons turned, driving pumps that filled the toilet’s enormous tank. With each back and forth motion of each engine’s individual pistons, a puff of saturated steam was emitted, letting out a discernible chuff. The crowd stood, in stunned disbelief, unable to believe what they were seeing.
“As you can see,” Brunel began, “around the entire edge of the toilet bowl is a catwalk.” He motioned towards the rim of the bowl as he spoke. “Stalls are placed at regular intervals so that you may do your business in private- yes that’s right, you- this toilet is open to the public.”
Up in the grandstand, the Archbishop of Canterbury approached the Queen’s seat. He took a knee before her. “Your Majesty, I do hate to be so forthcoming as to make a request, but… please! This is as absurd as it is obscene, you must do something!” Queen Victoria considered the request, then stood up.
“Give us a demonstration!” That was not what the Archbishop had in mind.
More than happy to oblige, Brunel signaled a worker atop the toilet’s tank. He waved in acknowledgement and turned a wheel, opening the valve that operated the flushing mechanism. As the massive valve opened, thousands of gallons of water poured into the bowl. A mighty roar of rushing water echoed throughout London as the bowl filled, and then it reached critical mass- now the toilet would drain, directly into the harbor.
Had he been more careful or less shortsighted, Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have realized his fatal error here. So massive and powerful was this toilet that each flush introduced enough water into the harbor in a short enough amount of time that the effect is as if the tide came in multiple times, and all at once. As the water in the harbor rose, anchored boats and ships crashed against their docks. Workers fled as the waters then rose above the docks, climbing higher still until even those ashore were not safe. Harbor water flooded in through the sewers and began bursting up through manholes. Spectators in the standing area now began to flee, and those in the grandstand watched in horror as the ever-rising tide drew near. The streets ran like rivers, and even London’s brave meat salesmen abandoned their wares as they sought refuge. As the tide came out, boxes of tea, fruit stands, and many racks of top hats awaiting purchase were washed out into the harbor.
Brunel himself was shocked- he didn’t expect this result. He had been too preoccupied with the magnificence of his creation to ever consider a consequence like this. He surveyed the wreckage, and then gazed towards the grandstand. He could see Queen Victoria still there, looking greatly irritated. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He reached up and removed his hat, holding it before him. He opened his mouth to apologize, but before he could, the Queen stood and issued an order, backed by the full authority of the Crown.
“Off with his head!”