Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a magnificent and serious film, sparkling intermittently with surprising and knowing humour even about the lowly toilet. When the character Dr Heywood Floyd, chairman of the National Council of Astronautics, is caught short on board his Pan-Am space flight from the United States to a giant orbital space station, he is faced with a sign warning “Zero Gravity Toilet: Passengers are advised to read instructions before use”. There follows a list of 10 inscrutable instructions spanning 700-odd words; it would take an average person four minutes to read these out loud. In space, no one can hear you scream in frustration.
What is funny here is that a simple, natural human function is held up by the hyper-rational demands of highly sophisticated 21st Century technology; and that despite all this brilliant technology humans are reminded several times a day of their inescapable Earthly nature. It also shows that even in such high-tech times, some decidedly low-tech answers are still difficult to beat. And one of the most simple and elegant of these is the male and female figures used for toilet signs.