Notable Bathtubs in History

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Ah, the pleasure of soaking in a warm bathtub! People have been bathing in artificial facilities since about 3300 BC, so there are bound to be some great bathtub stories in our history books. I found a few interesting ones.

Eureka!

The ancient Greek inventor Archimedes discovered the physics of displacement while soaking in a bathtub. The water rose when he got into the tub, and he figured you could measure the volume of all kinds of objects that way. As the story goes, he jumped up from the bath, shouted "Eureka!" and ran around naked telling people of his discovery. The Emperor had asked whether the royal crown was pure gold. Archimedes measured the volume of the crown by water displacement and compared that to the volume of an equal weight of pure gold. The volumes were different, indicating that the crown had lighter material underneath the gold.

Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

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H.L. Mencken wrote "A Neglected Anniversary" in the New York Evening Mail in 1917. The article gave a history of the bathtub in America, with facts like bathtubs were outlawed at one time, and that Millard Fillmore installed the first bathtub in the white house. The entire column was a work of fiction. Mencken said it was just a bit of fun, but others suspect that he wanted to prove the point that readers will believe anything printed. And they did! He admitted the hoax in print in 1926, but the genie was out of the bottle. Books, magazines, newspapers, and classroom teachers have passed on the "fact" about Millard Fillmore through the 20th century, and even into the internet age. The entire article is here. The actual first bathtub in the white house is hard to pin down, since early presidents bathed in tubs that were brought in and filled with water heated on stoves, at least as far back as James Madison. Water pipes were installed in the white house in 1833, during Andrew Jackson's administration.

Ship's Bathtub

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A bathtub on a Navy ship? Battleships are designed to carry as much equipment and as many men as needed without wasting an inch of space. But an exception was made for the USS Iowa When the ship was to take President Franklin Roosevelt to the Cairo Conference and the Tehran Conference in 1943, a bathtub was installed for his convenience. Roosevelt had been crippled by Guillain-Barré syndrome since 1921, and would have had a hard time taking a shower. The USS Iowa is now looking for a home as a museum ship.

The Oversized President

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William Howard Taft was the heaviest US president at 332 pounds. Early in his administration (1909-1913) he became stuck in the white house bathtub, and had a larger one installed. In 1912, he took his own oversized tub onto the battleship Arkansas for a trip from Key West to Colon. It was not permanently installed. In 1915, the New York Times printed a story of how Taft caused a hotel flood by displacing water in a bathtub in New Jersey.

Death in a Tub

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There have been a few famous people who have died in a bathtub. Thomas Merton, an influential Trappist monk and theological writer died at the age of 53 when he stepped out of a bathtub in Bangkok in 1968. He touched a poorly-grounded electric fan and was electrocuted. Singer Jim Morrison died in a Paris bathtub of a heart attack in 1971. He was only 27, and speculation is that the heart attack was drug-related. This account has been disputed and the whole story may never be known.

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November 4, 2008 - 7:50am
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