Ashish Kulkarni has a doctorate in chemical engineering. He used to develop plastics for General Electric. Now he’s in the bowels of a research facility in central New Jersey, dropping golf balls into a toilet.

“Three, six, nine, twelve …,” he tallies, each count punctuated with a small splash. Eventually the toilet – one of five mounted chest-high along a wall – holds 24 Titleists. Kulkarni hits the flush lever and a full-throated whoosh roars from the plumbing. Two dozen balls tumble out of the bowl, captured in a wire basket hung beneath the outflow line.

Yes, he’s heard all the jokes. “If I ever have to flush 24 golf balls in real life, I’ve got a problem,” Kulkarni says. But as chief engineer for American Standard, he needs a clever, clean way to demonstrate the power of the Champion, the company’s new ultraflusher. The tests continue: Kulkarni grabs a bucket of flexible, 4-inch vinyl tubes he calls water wigglers. Unlike golf balls, the wigglers float, providing another challenge worthy of a Champion. “Three, six, nine …,” he counts, loading the bowl with 14 wigglers. Whoosh. Another perfect flush.

For most people, toilets are a private perch, a place for quiet contemplation. But not for plumbing researchers. Their job demands that they dream of toilets that never were and ask, “Why not?” Lately they’ve been pushing hard. Ever since regulators clamped down on the volume of water allowed per flush, more users have reported clogs. New low-flow toilets, great in theory, just aren’t cutting it. Independent testers, frustrated by the industry’s lackadaisical response to these problems, have started to apply the same kind of pressure to toilet makers that JD Power did to car companies in the 1980s. The result: Manufacturers have begun using computer models and sophisticated math to create toilets that flush cleaner, faster, quieter, and more efficiently.

To understand the search for the perfect crapper, step into the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. It’s not a big place – you were expecting the Met? – but next to the exhibit of 19th-­century toilet paper (unused) sit the museum’s crown jewels: the commode collection. The earliest specimens are fancy chamber pots, a reminder that until quite recently our ancestors completed their digestive process by squatting over a bucket and throwing the results out a window. There’s a reason the word plague figures so prominently in history texts.

Englishman John Harington invented the toilet in 1596, but his technology didn’t take hold for centuries. Upstairs in the plumbing museum rests the 1891 Nautilus, which uses an elevated tank of water to do its dirty work. When it’s flushed, a valve opens, emptying the tank into the bowl. Gravity and momentum pull the water into an S-shaped trapway, creating a siphon into the sewer. If this sounds familiar, that’s because this 114-year-old technological ­wonder is basically the device in your bathroom.

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