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British Industrial History

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Alexander Cummings

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Alexander Cummings (c1732-1814) Horologist who assisted the Board of Latitude for the testing of the marine chronometer of John Harrison

Alexander Cumming (often referred to as Cummings, 1731/2 – 8 March 1814) was a Scottish watchmaker who was the first to patent a design of the flush toilet. This S-shaped plumbing design, survives in today's plumbing modified as a U- or J-shaped pipe trap located below or within a plumbing fixture. The S-shaped trap (or bend) was invented by Alexander Cumming in 1775 to prevent sewer gases from entering buildings.

Cumming was a mathematician and mechanic as well as a watchmaker. Little is known of his early life but he is believed to have been born in Edinburgh.

In the 1750s he was employed by Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll at Inverary as an organ builder as well as a clockmaker.

After his move to England he continued to work in both fields. Evidence for his organ building mainly relates to commissions from aristocratic patrons, particularly the Earl of Bute and his family.

By 1763 he had premises in Bond Street, London, and "had acquired a sufficient reputation to be appointed a member of the commission set up in that year to adjudicate on John Harrison's ‘timekeeper for discovering the longitude at sea’".

He made a barometrical clock for King George III, who paid him an annual retainer for its maintenance. Other barometrical clocks by him are at the Science Museum and on the Isle of Bute.

He wrote books about watch and clock work, about the effect on roads of carriage wheels with rims of various shapes, and on the influence of gravity.

With his brother he was involved in the development of the Pentonville district of London, where there is a Cumming street. He had a house in the district and an organ shop.

He became a magistrate in 1779.

In 1781 he was made an honorary freeman of the Clockmakers' Company.

In 1783 the Royal Society of Edinburgh was created and Cumming was made a Fellow.

As a result of his making instruments for Capt. Phipps's voyage in the polar regions, the island of Cummingøya was named after him

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