A one-thousand-nine-hundred-sixteen-word article three years in the making

Posted 04 Feb 2017    Edited 04 Feb 2017

The timing of this post may suggest that it'll be about the whole, "gender bathroom" controversy that is going on; but, it is not. In the spirit of getting it out of the way, I'll say that I don't think it matters where you go to the bathroom, as long as it's hygienic.

Instead, what I'm really interested in here is the history and design of shitters

Image courtesy of Tile Ideaz
As someone who frequents public restrooms several times on a daily basis, I have formed something of an opinion on their design. As a non-trans, water-drinking male, I have occasion to use a urinal pretty often; and I have some things to say.

Why Toilets Even

I guess back in the day before we were humans, we just went wherever. Probably even after we were humans, it went like that for quite a while. Once people started getting cholera, though, it really was time for us to get our shit together; like, literally, gather it all into one place [cholera sucks. It gives you watery diarrhea, and it's how one of my favorite guys died].

Sanitary toilets existed in some of the earliest known human societies - like, the Indus Valley civilization. They had plumbing; so did the Roman empire and other ancient civs.

So, it's not a new thing, but there are still tons of places in the world where whole cities of people don't have access to hygienic toilets [if you wanna see how disgusting it is for some people to take dumps, Google "pit toilet"].

Urinal as Symbol

To be honest, I'm not super interested in discussing toilets in general. I'm all about the design of urinals, and have been for quite some time.

The urinal may be the ultimate embodiment of male privilege - and it goes a little something like this:

  • You walk up
  • You unzip your fly
  • You pull out your weiner
  • You pee
  • You shake off the extra pee that hangs on you [or milk out the extra pee that hangs in you, depending on how thorough a man you are]
  • You retract your weiner back into your pants
  • You zip up the fly
  • You flush the urinal [optional]
  • You wash your hands [optional]
    • This may not sound true to some people, but I've exited bathrooms where my hands felt cleaner not having touched the sink to wash my hands, but rather just avoiding contact with all surfaces beyond by elbow against the door and my fingers against my own genitalia

It's way easy and you remain totally free from any significant contact with the receptacle.

Trust me, there are parallels that extend from the urinal to the male experience in general. Also, really funny video by Georgetown University on "male urinal privilege."

Urinal as Art

There is a definite aesthetic potential to the urinal: it's usually highly visible, it's interacted with at close range, and its users are basically free to just appreciate it without much distraction for about twenty seconds.

An artful approach to the urinal was realized in 1917 by Marcel Duchamp. Marcel was a hugely important figure in twentieth-century art. He was part of the Dada camp and basically the de facto father of the anti-art movement.

He submitted a piece to the Society of Independent Artist [SIA] in 1917. It was a urinal oriented at 90 degrees and tagged with the name "R. Mutt" and the year.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp - original picture by Alfred Stieglitz
There are a couple different origin stories for Duchamp's work: one was that he purchased the urinal from an Iron Works Company in New York City, tagged it, and submitted it to the SIA. Another is that Fountain was not even Duchamp's idea, but one that he submitted on behalf of a female colleague who wanted to use Duchamp's clout to secure the submission in the exhibit.

The board of the SIA [of which Duchamp was a member] voted against including the piece in its 1917 exhibit, which was held in New York at the Grand Central Palace. Members of the committee - along with many other artists of the time - declared that Fountain was not art at all. This sentiment is still held by some artists today.

Duchamp resigned from the SIA board in protest of the rejection. Although Fountain was not included in the exhibit, it was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at his studio. An image of the piece, along with an account of the SIA controversy, was included in a publication of The Blind Man, a Dada art journal.

In the article, an anonymous author [who was probably the magazine's founder Beatrice Wood] wrote:

Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

The original Fountain was lost shortly after it was made [probably thrown away by Stieglitz], but seventeen replicas were commissioned by Duchamp that still exist today. One was sold in 1999 for 1.7 million dollars.

Some other interesting takes on the urinal include - - -

Floral urinals by Clark Sorensen

Firehouse urinals. Photo cred: Jake Setlak

Horn urinals in Freiburg, Germany. Photo cred:

Urinal as Pissing Pot

Really, urinals wouldn't be around if they didn't serve that all-important purpose: get rid of pee.

The convenience of a urinal cannot be overlooked, but neither can its sensitivity to design. There are a few features that really make or break the good urinal, in my opinion.


This one is tricky. Urinal users range from the 1991 version of Macaulay Culkin to Conan O'Brien in the year two thousand. I'm short [for an American], so I get the struggle of peeing into a urinal that is too tall.

In my opinion, the best penis/leg angle is about sixty degrees [thirty degrees down from horizontal]. Peeing upward is fun for pissing contests you play against your brothers, but it's uncomfortable in an indoor situation. All pee should flow as "away" from your face as possible.

Many men's rooms have a midget urinal to compensate for height variations.

Photo cred: <- Yeah, a whole website committed to urinals. I don't really care for it as a viewer, but I'm impressed by the dedication of the author who has updated it with content consistently over the last fifteen years


A shit-on toilet is grosser than a peed-on urinal, but a urinal with pee all over it really is unpleasant. The best medicine for standing pee drops is good, old fashioned, regular cleaning. The office complex I work in has an awesome janitorial staff that cleans the bathrooms twice a day, and it makes my working experience - no - my life experience - brighter and happier.

Even though cleaning is the number-one cleanliness thing, there is a design feature that I would call a close second: lip width.

I don't know what the actual nomenclature or whatever is, but I'm gonna call the rim of the urinal bowl that is closest to you the lip. When that thing is thick, like this...

This is a urinal I used in college. Note the extremely wide lip and my gesture of disapproval
... you get a lot of nasty build-up on that wide lip [which acts like a pee shelf] and, unless you're tall, your wiener is pretty close to that mess when you've got it out to pee.

The best designs are either lipless [like urinals that extend all the way to the floor], or ones that have very thin-profiled lips, like this:

Another urinal in a different building at the same college
There are probably a lot more factors to consider, but the most important [by far] is


The standard definition of tangency is the degree to which "a line or a plane... touches a curve or a surface at a point so that it is closer to the curve in the vicinity of the point than any other line or plane drawn through the point."

Basically, a tangent line touches a curve at a single point along the curve.

Image from University of South Florida
In the image above, line BC is tangent to the curve of the circle because it just skiffs it at one point. Line AD isn't because it intersects the curvature

The male pee stream can be thought of as a straight line; and a straight line of moving pee is basically a liquid jet. Fluid dynamics dictates that a liquid jet that hits a surface head-on [or normal to the surface] will produce a lot of splattering if it's moving fast.

This image is from an MIT paper written by John Lienhard V about heat transfer into surfaces through liquid jets. The paper actually describes the behavior of the kind of free-surface liquid jet that a male pee stream represents - look at Section 6: Splattering Jets
The striking of a surface by a liquid jet [as illustrated above] is called impingement; and if you pee straight against a flat surface, you get impingement like that - with droplets that form and escape the surface. This happens because the smooth flow of the stream transitions to turbulent flow after it has flowed across the plate radially from the contact point.

Basically, pee splashes on you when you shoot against a flat-facing surface. But, if you can pee against a surface that is tangent to your stream, or at least at an extreme angle to it, you don't get any splashing.

Image courtesy of KLH Industries
There can still be turbulent droplet formation, but the inertia of the fluid carries it away from you.

The number one design feature of a good urinal is one that has accessible curves into which you can pee tangent. Like this:

Probably one of my favorite urinals. Located in a truck stop men's room in central Idaho
This design combines all of my favorite features: it's low, it has a narrow lip, and you can pee anywhere against its v-shaped edges and hit a really steep angle that will eliminate splashback.

The Ideal Urinal

I felt like I should stop bitching about other people's designs and put one together myself.

Urinal by harrisbk on Sketchfab
This is Sketchfab's browser element. Just press the play button to rotate, zoom, and view annotations.

I used free software to design and publish this urinal: Onshape for the CAD design, and Sketchfab for the in-browser publishing.

Onshape is way cool cad software that is totally browser-based. All models are cloud instances that can be edited in real time by multiple users. The engineering firm I work for recently replaced its existing cad software [SolidWorks, which costs $12k/year for a single license] with Onshape [which costs $4800/year for four licenses, plus the ability to share 3D data with all the employees in our company for free].

You can access my onshape document here.

Great Urinals

Peeing into a well-made urinal is so pleasant. When I pee into a splashy one or a dirty one or a boring one I'm extremely disappointed. Peeing into a weird one [even if it's not particularly well-designed according to the criteria above] is nice, just because it's a change of pace.

I love to pee. I love it even more when it becomes an immersive, artistic moment.