A brief history of the washing machine
Probably the greatest of all our labour-saving devices, the washing machine has been around in some form for more than 120 years. The first electric models were manufactured at the turn of the 20th century, but its origins stretch back further.
Ever since we started wearing clothes, there’s been a necessity to clean them – not just to avoid the soiling and aromas that might be frowned upon in society, but also to increase their longevity.
Before the Industrial Revolution, washing was done manually in a river, or by using tubs of water heated on a fire. It was hard work, with plenty of scrubbing, rinsing and wringing by hand.
Soap was invented many thousands of years BC, using ash and animal fats. By the 18th century, soap was common but laundering was still arduous, would take a whole day, and was often done by servants.
In the 1800s copper tubs, or coppers, heated the water and a wooden mangle or wringer squeezed out the excess liquid. The wringer consisted of two wooden cylinders and a large winding lever that rolled them together to squeeze out the water. As well as a jolly good workout, they were excellent at popping off buttons and crushing careless fingers, giving rise to the term ‘put through the wringer’.
The first incarnation of what we would call a washing machine came in the middle of the 19th century. American James King patented a drum-based contraption with a handle in 1851, and in the same decade Hamilton Smith patented the first spinning washing machine which also cycled heated water into the tub.
Other innovations that century included adding the wringer. Richard Pendleton invented England’s “compound rotary washing machine, with rollers for wringing or mangling” in 1862. With Thomas Bradford’s Vowel washing machine of the 1870s, “a boy or girl of twelve years old can wash twelve shirts, necks and wristbands included, in from twelve to fifteen minutes, or blankets in six minutes”.
First electric powered machines
The first electric-powered washing machine was invented by Alva J. Fisher in the US in 1907. The superbly named Thor was sold by the Hurley Machine Company of Chicago, and was a drum-style machine with a galvanised, perforated tub. Blades lifted the clothes as the drum rotated, and it would reverse the rotation to stop garments twisting together – features that are common today.
The next important innovation came in 1937 in the US, when Bendix Home Appliances released the first automatic domestic washing machine, which was also a front loader.
This machine set the aesthetic for today’s washers and looked way ahead of its contemporaries. It was the first machine that could be set and left to do its job, freeing “the busy housewife” from the drudgery of washday. But it didn’t have any drum suspension, so it had to be anchored to the floor to prevent it dancing out of the room during the spin cycle.
Laundry in New Zealand
Most Kiwi households in the first half the 20th century used a copper, a bar of Taniwha soap and plenty of elbow grease. Sometimes, coppers were used for other tasks, such as cooking the Christmas ham! Washing machines were expensive but prices dropped after World War II. By 1956, more than half of all NZ households had one and this grew to more than 90% by 1971.
Kiwi laundry innovations date back to 1892, when Elizabeth Gibbons, of Auckland, patented the “Gibbons knuckle roller washing machine”.
In the 1920s and ’30s, cheaper electricity allowed for a greater uptake of appliances. Imports such as the “Savage washer and drier” [sic] were sold here with the strapline: “The Spectre of the Wash-Tub can now be avoided!” It heated water electrically and spin-dried the clothes.
Manufacturing in New Zealand
In the 1930s, NZ washing machine manufacturing began – by Leonard Talmage Hayman in Auckland, and by Shaw Products in Christchurch (the Speedway). But both were manual, lever-operated models that didn’t eliminate the physical effort required to agitate the clothes.
Eventually, these machines evolved into motorised models, with the Speedway becoming a twin-tub machine.
Fisher & Paykel
One of New Zealand’s most successful and globally renowned companies, Fisher & Paykel, was established in 1934 in Auckland by Woolf Fisher and Maurice Paykel.
Initially they were merely importers of appliances. But in 1938 the Government, faced with declining export returns and a foreign exchange crisis, introduced foreign exchange controls and import licensing regulations that effectively banned the import of many goods. F&P had no option but to start manufacturing.
One of its first machines was the Savaday, referring to the fact that doing the laundry used to take a whole day. It was built under licence from Hotpoint in the UK and included a pastel-coloured range in the ’60s. It proclaimed: “Washing clothes the modern way.”
Other F&P models included the Whiteway and Washrite. These types, with integrated wringers, started to be phased out in the 1960s as twin-tub washers became available along with automatic machines, with combined washing and spinning tubs.
However, they were still being made in the 1970s because their large capacity, speed and ease of use made them popular with rural families, who tended to have large and dirty loads.
From the early ’60s, F&P manufactured a wide range of machines under licence, including the Bendix automatic front loader and the Hoovermatic Twin-Tub.
The Hoovermatic was popular as it was compact, semi-automatic and didn’t use a mangler, the second tub being the spin dryer. But you still had to wrestle the soaking wet clothes from one tub to the other, and it did have a tendency to jump around during the spin cycle.
Other Kiwi manufacturers
Other notable Kiwi manufacturers of the mid-20th century were Pallo Industries and Norge. Pallo was established in the 1930s in Wellington by Estonian migrant Karl Pallo. The Pallo washer claimed to be of a far higher engineering standard than its competitors and came in cream and green. Pallo Industries was sold to Sunbeam NZ in 1962.
Norge was an American brand, manufactured under licence by Cunningham EMI in Masterton. It produced twin-tub models from the 1960s and automatic machines in the 1970s, eventually closing its Masterton factory in 1981.
Gentle Annie and SmartDrive
By the 1980s, F&P had about 80% of the NZ market. It sold a range of Hotpoint licensed models from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, when it decided it was time to innovate and design for itself.
The first machine F&P designed was launched in 1985. The ECS (Electronically Commutated System), also called the Gentle Annie, was the first washing machine with an electronically controlled brushless DC (direct current) motor. This eliminated the need for a gearbox and made it quieter. It also allowed for more variations in the movement and speed of the agitator, thus being gentler on the clothing. This top-loading machine became very popular.
In 1991, the company innovated again with the SmartDrive. This removed the need for a belt and had the motor attached directly to the agitator shaft. The bowl was floated from the motor when it was full of water, allowing the agitator to move independently, and it re-engaged as the water drained for the spin cycle. The Australian appliance industry voted it product of the year in 1991.
Innovations in laundry
Washer-dryers and a hybrid
In 1953, Bendix innovated again with the first combination washer-dryer, the Duomatic, which was especially popular for homes with smaller living spaces.
Thor, the inventor of the first electric machine, produced the Automagic hybrid washer-dishwasher in the 1940s. This was made under licence in NZ by the intriguingly named Radiation New Zealand Ltd company in Dunedin. The Automagic had two removeable tubs (one for clothes, the other for dishes), and it took 90 seconds to swap them over. Imagine washing your undies and teacups in the same machine. Bafflingly, it never took off.
After F&P’s motor innovations in the mid ’80s and early ’90s, manufacturers started to use microprocessors. This gave more flexibility with programme types and timers, and even the ability to adjust wash cycles depending on load size.
Microprocessors also added simple functions such as delay timers that allowed you to specify your wash to be finished when you got home from work. More recently, smart connectivity has become available for whiteware so you can keep tabs on your machine remotely, and some manufacturers have introduced detergent dosing systems.
Energy efficiency and the future
Since it has been mandatory to display energy and water use ratings on whiteware, manufacturers have competed in making the most energy- and water-efficient appliances. But this can be at the detriment of cycle times, as to use less water but still produce clean clothes takes that much longer.
In the near future we will likely see more efficiency innovation with recycling of water within machines, along with built-in filters to remove microplastics from the laundry water. Synthetic fabrics release these tiny particles into the water, making their way into the ocean, into the food chain and back into our bodies. Not a good thing.
Washing machines have come a long way from those early days of scrubbing boards, copper drums and finger-crushing wringers. The innovations of the past century have transformed a lengthy and arduous washday into a simple set-and-forget button press. Now if only they could make a machine that would fold and put away the clothes too.