Detailed History of the Washing Machine

It's really interesting how the washing machine as we know it came to be. From washboards to rudimentary automatic machines to today's sophisticated models, learn the history of this helpful appliance.
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Clean clothes hang on a drying rack and a basket of white towels beside an empty and open washing machine.

The washing machine has been around longer than you’d think. This time-saving household appliance first appeared in the 1760s while its modern version first came out in 1908.

The automatic washing machine was introduced just in time in 1937 which significantly freed up women’s time from household chores and that eventually led to paving the way for women’s rights.

Dirty washing machine in the empty dirty tiled room in grunge style.

The modern washing machine is not even 200 years old yet since it was only invented in the 1850s. Previously, people cleaned their clothes by rubbing them with abrasive sand or pounding them on rocks. The Romans, for instance, invented the crude soap made of ash and fat from animal scarifies.

During the colonial times, the most common way of cleaning clothes was boiling them in a pot and then laying them on a flat board before beating them with a paddle. While most people associate it with pioneer life, the metal board was not invented until 1833. Before this period, washboards were made wholly of wood. Up to the civil war, laundry was done communally near springs, rivers, and other water bodies.

The statistics about washing machines

The latest market data shows that the UK alone consumes over 2.6 million washing machines a year. If the numbers extend to Europe, it could be 21 million washing machines per year. With more people buying washing machines, it’s expected that over 30 percent of the entire world’s population will own washing machines by the year 2025.

The first washing machines

An illustration of a vintage engraved wringer washing machine.

The earliest manual washing machines were operated by the human hand on the washboard. The washing machine cleaned by rubbing clothes between two ribbed surfaces. Although this machine was patented in 1846 in the US, it survived up to 1927. By mid-1800s, the United States was experiencing industrial revolution and as the industry grew and the nation expanded westward, the urban population increased. People had more ways of making money and the middle class ventured to come up with energy-saving devices. Some people, therefore, claim to have invented some form of the manual washing machine.

Two Americans, Hamilton Smith, and James Kings received patents for similar devices in 1858 and 1851 respectively. Historians claim that these devices were the first modern washers. However, other societies, including the Shaker community, improved their devices using technology. From 1850, the shakers built and marketed large wooden washers, designed to work on a small scale. One of their most popular devices was featured at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1976. Meanwhile, mechanizing laundry work raised many queries. For instance, most people questioned how the invention would affect the poorest of the women who relied on washing clothes for a living.

One of the first innovations of washing machines was the use of technology in the form of a rotating drum. These early designs primarily consisted of a rotating drum washer. Although the technology was simple, it was a significant milestone in the history of washing machines, and it was used until the 19th century when steam water came in.

Electric machines

Basket with laundry on stool and washing machine in a bathroom.

One of the catalysts of America’s industrial progress is Thomas Edison’s work in electricity. Until the late 1800s, commercial washing machines were driven by belts and steams while home washing machines were hand powered. With the introduction of Thor, all this changed in 1908. Invented by Alva J. Fisher, this machine was marketed by Hurley Machine Company. It was a drum type washing machine whose brand is still used today.

As Thor transformed the laundry business, other companies focused on the consumer markets. Among these companies was Maytag Corporation that started by producing farm implements, but gradually introduced a wooden washing machine in 1907. It soon only focused on manufacturing washing machines. Another well-known company, the Whirlpool Corporation, began the production of electric motor-driven wringer washers in 1911.

Automatic machines

Laundry in washing machine and basket in laundry room.

Bendix Home Appliances was the first company to introduce automatic machines in 1937 after getting a patent. From its mechanical detail and appearance, the machine was not like the automatic washers of today. Although it included most of today’s features, it did not have any drum suspension. Hence, it had to be anchored on the floor. It was a costly machine since it was built using expensive equipment. For instance, the drum speed was facilitated by a heavy duty 2-speed gearbox. The timer was also very pricey because the small electric motors were costly to produce.

Earlier on, automatic machines were usually linked to the water supply through temporary slip-on connectors. Later on, there were permanent connections to both the cold and hot water supplies. Most modern front loading machines now only have a cold water connection but rely on internal heaters to raise the water temperatures.

The social impact of the washing machines

Washing machines affected the labor process of washing clothes, which the society viewed to be a woman’s work. The machine is believed to have been the force behind the improvement of women’s positions in the society. According to a publication in an Italian newspaper, the washing machine has done a lot in the liberation of women, even more than abortion rights and contraceptive pills. A study done by the University of Montreal in Canada also revealed the same. Hans Rosling, a Swedish scientist, also pointed out that the washing machine has dramatically influenced women’s household roles; making it the greatest invention in the world. Some also argue that the washing machine is one of the best labor-saving technologies the world has since it does not decrease employment.

According to Frances Finnegan, washing machines have also boosted the economic viability of some parts of the world. Before the advent of these machines, laundry was done at watercourses, and those who specialize in washing clothes are slowly adapting to the technology. Many laundry businesses have come up since people are getting busier day by day and they do not have time to wash clothes. Moreover, some fabrics are too thick, and they are better cleaned with a commercial washing machine.

The end of wringers

A turquoise vintage washing machine wringer in a room..

The wringers consisted of two cylinders that squeezed water out of the clothes. However, the wringer would not totally dry the clothes. It would just squeeze them from dripping wet to damp. In the electric age, wringers were controlled by a motor. They thus required a lot of labor to feed through each piece of clothing. Wringers were also notorious for injuring the fingers. The job done by the wringer was later on replaced by the spinning process where clothes were spun in the drum at a very high speed inside a perforated container. This idea of applying centrifugal force to dry the clothes was invented before the electricity but electricity made it easier.

Manufacturing challenges

The manufacture of washing machines encompassed some technological challenges. These difficulties included finding a suitable motor, discovering a method of transferring power and finding a suitable motor with enough initial torque. Protecting orators from shock was also a significant challenge. During the power transfer, some machines were belt driven; some were chain driven, while others used gears and shafts. To overcome the resistance while starting the machine, fractional horsepower motor which would not overheat or burn up during the startup was used to prevent electric shocks.

Improvements made

Consumers needed a machine that would clean without destroying clothes. In this light, if the original scrubbing machines were used, the machines had to run at different speeds depending on the texture of the clothes. To overcome this, machines that sloshed water through the clothing were invented. Either the baffle placed inside the tab moved, or the tab ran. Early washing machines had a rusty, heavy cast iron installed inside the tab lid. The reduction of the gears and the introduction of the metal tub was, therefore, a significant improvement. By 1920, this kind of wood tub was no longer being developed.

The other development was a clock timing device embedded on the machine to facilitate the operation for a predicted period. The operator no longer needed to continually monitor the machine. By early 1950, many companies were manufacturing machines with a spin-free feature to replace the wringer which caused accidents involving the hands and the fingers. In 1957, a washing machine was developed and fitted with five buttons to control rinse temperature, wash temperature, spin speed, and agitation speed.

Major types of modern washing machines

Opened modern washing machine in metallic color in a white background.Modern washing machines can be categorized into two major types; the front loader and the top loader. Top loaders come with a vertical cylinder and clothes are loaded into the machine from the top. These machines have an agitator at the top to provide the motion required. On the other hand, front loaders have a horizontal cylinder which resembles a drum. Hence, clothes are loaded through the door in front. To wash the clothes, the paddle and the drums move the clothes around. The combination of gravity and motion force the water through the clothes during the cleaning process.

Nowadays, it is tough to deal without a washing machine since with tighter schedules; there is an increasing pile of dirty shirts, socks, and pants. Choosing a washing machine could be taxing but when it comes to comparing modern washing machines, the front loaders are the best since they provide a more thorough and vigorous wash, use less energy and less water. They are also kinder on the clothes. Nonetheless, even though they save a lot of time and are efficient, just like any other technological and electrical appliances, the modern washing machines are likely to break down. They, therefore, need maintenance from time to time. This may include replacing the water horses, cleaning the machine and adding a drip pan beneath the machine.

Facts about washing machines

Row of washing machine of laundry business in the public store.

While most people use washing machines every day, they are not aware of facts about washing machines. Here are some of the fantastic facts about washing machines:

  • The first washing machines came about in 1760 and were made of a wooden box operated by hand and filled with clothes.
  • Scholars now acknowledge that washing machines played a significant role in women’s lives since they reduced the amount of time women spend doing their house chores.
  • While the modern washing machine first appeared in 1908, its design is still the same as the traditional one. More so, the automatic washing machine came about in 1937.
  • More than 90% of all washing machines are used by women as they undertake their day to day house chores. This is very important in the history of the washing machine.
  • Washing machines are believed to be responsible for lost socks.
  • The average family uses the washing machine 8 to 10 times a week.
  • Earlier washing machines used to run on gasoline or steam. They were even built with wringers.
  • Washing machines account for almost a quarter usage of water in the USA.

Washing machines quotes

Happy housewife in laundry room with washing machine.

  •  Life is just as exciting as seeing the washing machine do the work- Antony T-Hinks
  •  What is in my boxer is what makes the washing machine blush- Antony T Hinks
  •  Soap operas have the same power as watching the washing machine do the work- Stewart Stafford.

The prices of washing machines

Happy young couple choosing washing machine in hypermarket.

Although it may not be the most exciting purchase, it’s essential to carry out enough research before buying a washing machine. You need to buy one that’s not too loud for your living space and one that is big enough to meet your needs. Washing machines with bigger interiors are more flexible, and they can handle bulky items such as sleeping bags and comforters. If you mostly wear delicate fabrics, you should consider a washing machine with cycles to stimulate hand washing. With prices ranging from $250 to $1000, it is important to carefully consider the machine’s specs. Before choosing one, you need to examine the power and the performance and know what constitutes a good and bad washing experience. Also, you should analyze factors such as such as capacity, design, and range of other programs. A good washing machine should be able to tackle stains such as oil, red wine among others.






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