Who invented the washing machine? A brief history of laundry technology

June 5th, 2015

Appliance Questions Appliance Talk Laundry Washers & Dryers

On the way to work the Appliances Online head office this morning, a member of our legendary team grabbed this screenshot from his phone from the time capsule app, Timehop:

timehop washing machine

That’s adorable! But is it accurate? Let’s find out…

The Mighty Thor

No, it’s not Chris Hemsworth – it’s an antique washing machine.

A quick bit of research on the interwebs told us that the 1907 date provide by Timehop most likely refers to Alva J. Fisher’s patent of the Thor washing machine, produced by the Hurley Electric Laundry Equipment Company in Chicago.

thor oldewashsource: oldewash

Washing machines had been in use prior to this date, powered by hand-cranks and steam contraptions. But the Thor used an electric motor to turn the clothes through the water, and is therefore credited as the world’s first automatic washing machine.

That said, there is debate over whether or not the Thor really counts as the “first” electric washer, given the somewhat murky records of US patents from around the turn of the century.

Professor Lee Maxwell has written a detailed academic essay on this subject over at Oldewash.com, which states:

“It cannot be concluded that Alva J. Fisher invented the electric washing machine and furthermore, whoever did, remains unknown.”

As a side note, Professor Maxwell should know what he’s talking about – in addition to his academic credentials, according to his author bio, he holds a Guinness World Record for his collection of over 1060 antique washing machines!

Washing machines through the ages

While I’m no historian, washing machines slowly grew in popularity over the first half of the 20th century, but demand began to really take off in the years following WW2, like many other domestic appliances. Top loading and front loading models were introduced, as well as inexpensive twin-tub designs that still have a devoted following today.

Samsung Washer Dryer Combo WD10F7S7SRPSamsung Washer Dryer Combo WD10F7S7SRP

Many modern washing machines have added a digital element to their operation, using sensors and microprocessors to automatically select water levels and wash settings to provide the perfect clean to laundry loads of various sizes. Some have even joined the handheld revolution, with apps available to run your washing machine with the help of your smartphone.

But while their technology has changed and evolved over the decades, at their core, washing machines still consist of the same motor and a drum that ran the AJ Fisher’s Thor… whether  it was the first electric washer or not.

Mark joined Appliances Online in November 2011 and has since learned more than he ever expected to know about appliances. He enjoys looking for new and unusual ways for to solve everyday problems using typical household appliances. When he’s not toiling at the desks of Appliances Online and Big Brown Box, he tries to find time to write the next big bestseller and draw satirical cartoons, but is too easily distracted by TV, music and video games. Mark’s favourite appliance is the Dyson Groom Tool, as he loves the concept of vacuuming your dog. Google+

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