3 of the Greatest Plumbing Projects in History

The Greatest Plumbing Projects in History

Few professions seem more humble than plumbing. We literally do the dirty jobs that keep modern life from, well, stinking. Just because we do our best work in the background doesn’t mean we don’t bust loose every once in awhile, however.

Plumbing has been an essential aspect of developing society ever since people started living in groups. That means over the years there have been plenty of large-scale plumbing jobs, plans, mistakes, and breakthroughs. Here are three of the most massive plumbing projects of all time. Each of these projects has profoundly affected culture, history, and economy–and some still are!

the roman aqueducts are one of the greatest plumbing projects in history

Roman Aqueducts

Ancient aqueducts were channels designed to transport water from a reservoir to an often-distant city. Rome’s aqueducts weren’t the earliest–not by a long shot, in fact. They were, however, the most ambitious and impressive feats of plumbing engineering of their time. Rome’s aqueducts marked a new era for the importance of centralized, planned plumbing. Simply put, without the water and sewage transportation the aqueducts provided, a city with the population and power of Rome would have been logistically impossible.

Roman aqueducts were an answer to a problem: The city needed a lot more water than it had. Rome’s first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, was constructed in 312 BC. The 16.4 kilometer-long channel supplied the Forum Boarium fountain with 75,500 cubic meters of water every day. As the empire continued to expand, it constructed many more aqueducts. The longest aqueduct, the Aqua Marcia, was 56 miles long! The aqueducts aren’t weren’t just impressive for their scale, either; they’re considered engineering marvels for their ingenious construction and longevity. In fact, the Acqua Vergine, which was built in 19 BC, still supplies water to Rome to this day!


London's sewer system is one of the greatest works of plumbing in history

London Sewerage System

People have lived in London since around the year 50. As you might imagine, a city that’s thousands of years old may not have the most modern infrastructure. In the 19 century, London’s plumbing system supported three million people, 360 sewers, and all the outfall of heavy industry. A lot of the system’s waste discharged directly into the River Thames… pictured above… in the middle of London.

London’s sewage problems culminated in an event known as–we’re not making this up–”the Great Stink”. In 1858, hot summer heat baked the Thames, creating a smell of such biblical proportions that the amendment proposing cleanup called the river “a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”. Joseph Bazalgette made life in London possible again when he designed a sewer system to divert waste away from the city. Bazalgette’s system comprised six intercepting sewers almost 100 miles long. Thousands of workers spent years constructing the sewers using 318 million bricks and 880,000 cubic feet of concrete. Though the city has replaced almost all the original pipes, Bazalgette’s original design still serves as the skeleton for one of the most elaborate and important sewage systems on Earth.


Tokyo's G-Cans drainage system is one of the most impressive feats of plumbing engineering in history

Tokyo’s G-Cans Drain System

Over 38 million people call the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area home, making it the most populous metro in the world. It’s also one of the areas most at-risk of climate change-related flooding. Experts believe Tokyo will be 10 to 20 percent more affected by uneven rising sea levels than most of the rest of the world. Climate change could also exacerbate Japan’s infamous rainy season (tsuyu), leading to sudden so-called “guerrilla rainstorms”, which may cause massive flooding.

So: how do you respond to an unprecedented flooding threat? By building the world’s biggest drain. The G-Cans project (otherwise known as the Metropolitan Outer Underground Discharge Channel) took 17 years and two billion dollars to construct. The G-Cans channels overflowing flood water from Tokyo rivers into five 213 foot deep, 105 foot-wide silos before finally depositing it in a 580-foot deep pillared tank called the “Underground Temple”. The tank connects to several 14,000 horsepower turbines and 78 water pumps, which can pump 200 tons of water out of the tank and into the Edogawa river per second. The feat of plumbing technology is so impressive that it hosts a very popular guided tour every day!


Each of these three projects are quite impressive, but as you’re no doubt all-too-aware, not all plumbing ventures are fated to meet with success. Stay tuned for our examination of grand plumbing projects that are famous (or infamous) for… different reasons than these ones are.

In the meantime, if you’re undergoing a grand plumbing experiment yourself–or if you just can’t get your sink to stop gurgling–give Ben Franklin a call anytime. We’ll see what we can do about preventing your own personal “great stink”.

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