The Washing Machine: From Hand Cranker to Automaton

By: Elizabeth Miller


People must have been excited out of their minds when an American inventor named James King advanced the task of washing clothes from the washboard to a hand-cranked contraption that resembled a machine in 1851.

By 1880, more than 4,000 washing devices had been patented. There were washing "machine" models that rubbed clothes together, or pummeled them up and down, or stomped on them, or dragged them through the water, or slammed them against the walls of the wooden tubs of the day. All powered by hand except one 12-shirt model that was run by 10 donkeys for a California gold miner who may have introduced the first "laundromat."

An 1874 washing "machine" by corn planter manufacturer William Blackstone of Bluffton, Indiana had been inspired by his decision to build a birthday gift for his wife. Inside the wooden tub was a flat piece of wood with six wooden pegs, all together looking like a small milking stool. If you cranked a handle you could move a series of gears and the result would be that the clothes were caught on the pegs and swished around in the water.

Mr. Blackstone was also a merchant so be built some more washing "machines" and started selling them for $2.50 each. His company exists to this day.

Pretty soon came the competition, spawning hundreds of washing machine companies spewing out all manner of contraptions and inching up prices to around $10.00 apiece.

In 1861 came the wringer, an exciting new feature that did away with having to work so hard at squeezing the water out of the clothes.

The next big leap came when wooden tubs were replaced by metal tubs in about 1900. After that came washing machines that included drive belts, and this made it possible to add steam or gasoline engines. So now we were on our way from manual to automatic.

The first electric-powered washing machine was invented by Alva J. Fisher and unveiled in 1908 by the Hurley Machine Company of Chicago, Illinois. This launched the new era of electric washing machines. Some 1920s models included coal-fired heating from a fire grate beneath the washing drum. Oh, and any model with an electric motor under the metal tub was pretty sure to get wet and shock the user.

All during this period the great American washing machine companies of today were coming to life. Maytag by F.L. Maytag in 1893. Whirlpool in 1911. Bendix in the mid 1930s.

And in 1937, free at last. Look Ma, no hands. A subsidiary of Bendix Aviation ended the hassles of shoveling coal, messing with gasoline, cranking clothes wringers, being electrically shocked and all the rest, once and for all. They brought us the first automatic washing machine. John W. Chamberlain invented the device that washed, rinsed and extracted water from clothes all by itself. This machine was a sensation, even though the vibration was so extreme that it had to be bolted to the floor.

By 1953, spin-dry washing machines were outselling the wringer models, and the electric automatic washing machine entered the evolutionary path of those evermore convenient bells and whistles that make our lives so much easier today.

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Copyright MBPCO 2006 and Beyond. Elizabeth Miller is an author/publisher. For more about washing machines just click washing machines.

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