Toilets take on a lifesaving role in a 1981 patent that proposed the water trap within a basin could give a person trapped in a burning room access to fresh air. The patent claims that if a room is filled with toxic gases, the inhabitants just might survive by inserting a tube through the water and out the other side, sucking on their toilet snorkel until help arrives.
The impressive out-the-box thinking came from William O Holmes, who was inspired by a rash of high-rise hotel fires that resulted in loss of life due to toxic smoke inhalation. According to Michigan State University, smoke inhalation is actually the most common cause of death in hours fires rather than burning.
When a fire breaks out, it needs oxygen to burn, so it doesn’t take long before this is sapped from the environment. Without oxygen to breathe, entrapped people will likely pass out before they have time to make it to the exits, or before help has time to arrive.
That could all change were, say, a high-rise hotel to have some kind of built-in airway to guests’ rooms that acts as a gateway to fresh air while a person remains trapped in toxic smoke. Enter: the toilet.
While a tube into a toilet basin can do little to keep fire at bay, Holmes argued it could provide life-saving access to cleaner air, buying people trapped inside a burning building some precious extra minutes to get out alive. So, how does it work?
Toilet basins that are constantly filled with some liquid have a water trap that effectively prevents the hole in your toilet from being an open gateway to the sewer. As you can imagine, this has benefits for stopping unpleasant smells from getting through.
Stopping smells surely means stopping smoke, and so Holmes's idea was to effectively stick an elaborate snorkel through the water trap and access the air on the other side. Provided an occupant didn’t burn, they just might live long enough for some to arrive with an oxygen canister and get them safely out of the building.
If you’re thinking that “fresh air” is doing some heavy lifting when you’re inhaling sewer gases, Holmes thought of that too. The snorkel user would first flush the toilet to sweep away the sewer gases lingering in the pipe, and then a nifty design quirk of hotels could help neutralize the air.
“It is common practice to attach a fresh-air vent in the form of a pipe or stack to the sewer line to provide optimum operation of the toilet,” reads the patent. “The air vent normally extends upwardly through the roof of a structure, such as a high-rise hotel, to expose it to ambient fresh air.”
“The air vent will further function to expel sewer gases to ambient and release any back pressures on the toilet so that it does not gurgle when drained and waste products do not back up, particularly into lower floor toilets when upper floor toilets are flushed.”
The design also includes a filter that can absorb noxious and/or toxic impurities that remain in the sewer pipe air, possibly facilitated by a charcoal attachment.
It might not sound ideal, but nobody said surviving a fire would be pretty – and as weird patents go, it's got nothing on The Interrogator.