Although recorded history tells a much shorter story, as you’ll soon read, rain gutters have been around for 2,000 years or longer. Think of it this way. Let’s say the year is 3,000BC and you live somewhere far away from a water source. You have to get up early and carry heavy water from a well or from a running stream. Or perhaps from a body of water such as a lake or a dirty pond that is of questionable quality.
Then one day you notice clean rain water falling from the sky and you begin pondering. “What if I were to divert that water from the roof into something close and save it for later?” And thus rain gutters were born of a necessity for survival.
I don’t know if you’ve ever carried a 5 gallon bucket of water before. But they are heavy when full, about 30lbs. Now put one in each hand and walk a half mile. Next, do that several times each morning and then again every evening to water your livestock, crops, and have water for your house for cooking and drinking.
So it seems collecting rain water close to the house would be a super huge time and labor saver. Plus, it’s much cleaner water than a stinky pond. Or a river that someone could be doing something gross into miles up the river.
Early Wood Gutters
People began building wooden troughs and attaching them to the eaves of their roof line. The two most common types consist of two wooden boards in a V-shape, and a hollowed log cut in half forming a U-shape trough.
The troughs were not always made of wood. Sometimes they were metal or stone depending on the structure. These troughs would then route water to a downspout and into a collection container. Containers would vary depending on materials at hand; such as a barrel, clay pots, or other cisterns. Also popular was diverting water into a man-made pond.
The White Tower of London
An interesting footnote in history shows gutters in use on a castle dating back to 1240AD.
According to Wikipedia, The Tower of London had external rain gutters made of lead. In March 1240 King Henry gave orders to the Keeper of the Works at the Tower of London “to have the Great Tower whitened both inside and out”. This was common gutter maintenance of the time.
Later that year the king wrote to the Keeper commanding that he should extend the White Tower’s lead guttering with the effect that the wall of the tower may be in no danger of perishing or falling outwards due to the rain.
“We command you to cause all the leaden gutters of the great Tower, which through rain water should fall from the summit of the same Tower, to be carried to the ground, so that the wall of the said Tower, which has been newly whitened, may be in no wise injured by the dropping of rain water, nor be easily weakened.”
So you see, the King was wise about the dangers of water damage to a structure; both internal and external.
Other Towers and Castles
Check out the many still-intact castles and you will notice many have pitched roofs. These angles downward sloping roofs divert rain and snow towards drainage either outside the walls or inside the castle courtyard area into cisterns. Most castles have stone paver courtyards with ground level gutters to route the rainwater away to keep them from flooding. Many designs have rainwater routing downhill into barrels and cisterns; sometimes even into their protective boundary moat.
Early farmers would also rely heavily on routing and collecting rain water for watering their crops and livestock. Ground level gutters of stone were common at the time. Also common were simple ditches dug into the dirt.
The Roman Aqueducts
In my opinion, one of the most excellent examples of early gutter engineering comes from the Roman aqueducts of 312 BC. According to Wikipedia the Romans constructed aqueducts throughout their Republic and later Empire to bring water from outside sources into cities and towns. Aqueduct water supplied public baths, latrines, fountains, and private households; it also supported mining operations, milling, farms, and gardens.
Rome’s first aqueduct in 312 BC supplied a water fountain at the city’s cattle market. By the 300 AD the city had eleven aqueducts sustaining a population of over a million people. Most Roman aqueducts proved reliable and durable; some were maintained into the early modern era, and a few are still partly in use. In 1st century BC, Vitruvius notes methods of aqueduct surveying and construction in his work “De Architectura”.
So there you have it, a brief history on the origins of rain gutters and how they were evolving though history. While people often overlook their rain gutters, it is notable to realize how important gutters and troughs are throughout history, as well as today.
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Owner: Greg Martin
Location: San Marcos, CA. 92069