100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview
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Washing Machine________

Year of Invention: 1906

What Is It? An electric machine to wash and spin-dry clothes.

Who Invented It? Alva Fisher (in Chicago)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Americans do many millions of loads of laundry every day. With electric washing machines, each load consumes less water, creates less pollution, and saves several hours of human labor compared to a hand-washed load.

The washing machine was the first of the great electrical household convenience machines. In effect, the washing machine ushered in the domestic mechanical age in which we live.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

For centuries, people beat clothes on flat rocks at the edge of a stream or lake. By the height of the Roman Empire, most wealthy people had graduated to tubs, whose sudsy water was dumped into a stream or alleyway by servants after the wash. That basic wash tub didn’t change for almost 2,000 years.

To do a load of wash, a woman heated water over a fire and carried the hot water inside to her washtub. The tub was hand filled and later hand emptied. She had to heat the wash water in order to melt the soap that would clean her load of clothes. She would flake the soap from a large soap block by hand. She would have to agitate the clothes by hand, wring out the clothes by hand, haul the soapy water out and bring in the rinse water by hand, rinse her load of clothes by hand, and finally wring the clothes to a damp dry by hand.

If clothes were especially grimy or greasy, she would have to add a step where she treated them with lye and beat on the clothes (usually stomped on them in her bare feet) to work the lye in and the grease out. Washing clothes was time consuming, hard work and hard on the material in the clothes.

In the seventeenth century many washtubs added a washing dolly, a pole attached to small paddles that the user pumped up and down to agitate the clothes and soap. The washboard appeared in England sometime before 1800 and spread quickly to America, where it gained popularity.

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