Who Invented the Washing Machine?

As I was looking into the articles I wrote on this blog, I stumbled upon the one about the invention of the dishwasher. I was convinced I wrote about the washing machine, but it was not the case. Both are used to washing, but I already got the first (and I don’t use it, but it came with the kitchen), and I really need the second, because the weekly trips to the laundromat are not a fun time. But for now, let’s look into the past with…

Before There Was a Washing Machine

There was a time before the days of modern conveniences when laundry was an arduous and time-consuming task. In ancient times, individuals had to wash their garments by hand, frequently next to a river or stream. Sand, stones, and soap were used to remove stains and grime from the clothes. For example, the Romans constructed public laundries where they utilized fermented human urine, rich in ammonia, to bleach linen. The Gauls employed birch cinders to improve the cleaning process.

When diseases like cholera, smallpox, and typhoid fever were prevalent, washhouses were especially important for enhancing public health and hygiene. They offered protected spaces where washerwomen could congregate and complete their laundry tasks, increasing washing efficiency and decreasing reliance on natural water supplies. Public washrooms were frequently built with state funding, and the number of them in a hamlet was a sign of its affluence.

Who Created the Washing Machine?

Early types of washing machines first appeared in the late 17th century. The earliest English washing machine patent was granted in 1691 to an inventor named Thomas Pratt, and his invention was described as a “new contrivance or engine for washing linen.” The contraption was a barrel or box with a perforated bottom. A handle on the outside of the barrel might be used to turn a system of paddles or vanes inside.

Clothes, water, and soap were put into the barrel to utilize Pratt’s washing machine. The user could turn the paddles by turning the handle on the barrel’s outside, churning the water and cloths, and producing a washing movement. The dirty water could flow out of the barrel’s perforated bottom while the dirty clothing remained inside.

The Perfection Washer. Rotatory Washing Machine (source)

By 1752, a depiction of an early washing machine had been published in a British magazine called The Gentleman’s Magazine. It was an apparatus referred described as a “Rotatory Washing Machine.” This device was created to help in the washing process, making it less time-consuming and more effective than conventional handwashing techniques.

The Rotatory Washing Machine was made up of a sizable cylinder or barrel that could be manually twisted or rotated. When the cylinder was twisted, the ridges, grooves, or paddles inside would stir the water and clothing. This agitation, which served as a mechanical washing action, assisted in removing dirt and stains from the clothing.

But those machines were just elaborate contraptions, not really the washing machine as we think of today. This one came a few years later.

Schäffer’s Washing Machine

The real breakthrough came in 1767 when a German scientist named Jacob Christian Schäffer invented the washing machine. Schäffer was a versatile individual with degrees in philosophy and theology, and he made significant contributions to various scientific fields like botany, ornithology, mycology, entomology, optics, and electricity.

Schäffer’s washing machine was built with durable components to endure the demands of laundry operations and was planned for longevity. A wheel or crank that users had to turn in order to start the washing machine. In order to help remove dirt and stains, this action caused a back-and-forth motion that agitated the clothing in both directions. The clothing was first boiled in the washing machine before being washed.

The clothes were frequently pre-treated with wood ash before being put in the washing machine, which served as a natural detergent and assisted in removing stains and odors. The device has a draining system for emptying off the soiled water. This was accomplished by the machine having a gutter that allowed the effluent to drain out after washing.

Compared to manual washing methods, Schäffer’s washing machine was designed to require less physical work. The procedure was made more effective by the use of the machine and the back-and-forth motion produced by turning the wheel.

Nathaniel Briggs was awarded the first American washing machine patent on March 31, 1797–his patent was about “Clothes Washing.” Unfortunately, no comprehensive description of Briggs’ washing machine has survived to the present day because of a fire that broke out in the American Patent Office in 1836. As a result, little is known about the precise layout and characteristics of his innovation.

1920 advertisement for the Thor electric washing machine.

Evolutions in Washing Machine Technology

During the 1830s, washing machine technology saw further advancements in England, with the introduction of more sophisticated hand-cranked machines using rotating drums. Then, Steam power was incorporated into washing machines in the 19th century, making it possible to raise the water temperature and achieve more hygienic and efficient washes.

In 1904, the first electric washing machines were advertised and discussed in newspapers. The true inventor of the electric washer remains unknown, as there were multiple patents and inventors associated with early electric washing machine designs.

In the United States, electric washing machine sales reached 913,000 units in 1928, indicating the growing popularity and adoption of this modern laundry technology.

In the 1930s, automatic washing machines started to emerge. These machines incorporated timers and other mechanisms to control the washing and rinsing cycles automatically, reducing the need for manual intervention. The first fully automatic washing machine, called the “Thor,” was introduced by the Hurley Machine Company in 1937.

Throughout the mid-20th century, washing machines evolved into two primary designs: top-loading and front-loading machines. Top-loading machines were more common in the United States, while front-loading machines gained popularity in Europe and other parts of the world. Front-loading machines are generally more water-efficient and gentle on clothes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, washing machine manufacturers introduced agitator-free designs. Traditional top-loading machines used an agitator, a central column with fins, to move clothes around during the wash cycle. Agitator-free machines use alternative technologies, such as pulsators or impellers, which are gentler on fabrics and allow for larger capacities.

And now, we have washing machines with digital controls, LCD screens, and programmable settings. They also can offer connectivity to mobile devices, enabling remote control and monitoring of the washing process. There also are eco-friendly features, such as quick wash cycles, cold wash options, and load sensors that adjust water usage based on the load size. And some washing machines now come with integrated dryer functions, known as washer-dryers or combo machines.

After that, you may also be interested in reading about the invention of dry cleaning or the dishwasher!

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