The History of Washing Machines

washer time lapsA washing machine, otherwise known as a clothes washer, is an apparatus used to wash dirty
laundry, such as clothing and bed sheets.  The term is mostly applied only to machines that use water as opposed to dry cleaning or ultrasonic cleaners.  Washing entails immersing, dipping, rubbing, or scrubbing in water, usually accompanied by detergent or bleach.  The simplest machines simply agitate clothes in water, while automatic machines fill, empty, wash, spin, and heat in a cycle.  Most modern washing machines remove substantial amounts of water from the laundry at the end of a wash cycle, but do not completely dry it.  Washing machines have come a long way from their humble, simple, and sometimes dangerous predecessors though.  Ancient people cleaned their clothes by pounding them on rocks or rubbing them with abrasive sands, and then washing the dirt away in local streams, and the earliest washing machines were just a slightly more advanced version of this process.

The earliest machines were hand-operated and constructed from wood, while later machines made of metal permitted a fire to burn below the washtub, keeping the water warm throughout the day’s washing.  In fact, until the mid-1800s, the most advanced piece of washing equipment was the scrub board, invented in 1797.  By the 1850s, steam-driven commercial laundry machinery was on sale in the UK and US, although technological advances in machinery for commercial washers proceeded much faster than domestic washer design, especially throughout Europe.  The US was the first to focus heavily on the development of washers for the home though.  As electricity was not commonly available until at least 1930, most early washing machines were operated by a low-speed single-cylinder hit and miss gasoline engine.  After the items were washed and rinsed, water had to be removed by twisting.  To help reduce this labor, the wringer/mangle machine was developed which used two rollers to squeeze water out of clothing, operated by a manual or powered hand crank.  As implied by the term “mangle,” these early machines were quite dangerous, especially if powered and not hand-driven.  A user’s fingers, hand, arm, or hair could become entangled in the laundry being squeezed, resulting in horrific injuries.

The modern process of water removal by spinning did not come into use until electric motors were developed.  Spinning requires a constant high-speed power source, and was originally done in a separate device known as an “extractor”.  What is now referred to as an automatic washer was at one time referred to as a “washer/extractor”, which combines the features of these two devices into a single machine, plus the ability to fill and drain water by itself.  With the implementation of electric drive motors, US electric washing machine sales reached 913,000 units in 1930, despite their high cost.  Washer design was greatly improved during the 1930s, as the washing mechanism was enclosed within a cabinet, and more attention was paid to consumer safety.  By 1940, 60% of the 25,000,000 wired homes in the United States had an electric washing machine.  General Electric introduced a selection of front-loading and top-loading units in the 1950s, which included most of the features that are incorporated into modern machines.  Since then, the basic design and features of washing machines hasn’t changed much, simply improved upon, with the addition of different bells and whistles offered by competing manufacturers.  Most modern washers offer predefined programs for different laundry types, variable water temperatures, and adjustable rotation speed settings.  Today, most of us take these appliances for granted, and the biggest decision one has to make when purchasing a new washer is what incredible bells and whistles we think will make life the easiest.  We should be forever thankful though for the advances in appliance technology which have made our domestic lives more convenient, especially when it comes to washing machines.

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