How one of England’s greatest magicians helped Britons “spend a penny”

March 7, 2018

John Nevil Maskelyne is one one of England’s most notable magicians and ardent skeptics. His lifelong feud with the Davenport brothers, a pair of fraudulent spiritualists from the States, is the stuff of legend. But, as The Magic Circle explains, not only was Maskelyne a master magician, professional watchmaker, groundbreaking author and gifted inventor, he was also indirectly responsible for a British term for relieving oneself that persists to this very day.

One of Maskelyne’s many inventions was the first mechanical toilet door toll lock. The device required the user to deposit a penny before they could deposit the contents of their bladder, leading to the popular euphemism for urination, “to spend a penny.”

While Maskelyne may have invented the first mechanical pay toilet, the concept had been tried as early as 74AD, when Roman Emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, tried to charge citizens to use Rome’s public toilets. He was roundly mocked for the decision by critics, to whom he responded with the now famous phrase, “Pecunia non olet,” or, “money does not stink.” Maskelyne may have felt the same way.