A washing machine (laundry machine, clothes washer, or washer) is a home appliance used to wash laundry. The term is mostly applied to machines that use water as opposed to dry cleaning (which uses alternative cleaning fluids and is performed by specialist businesses) or ultrasonic cleaners. The user adds laundry detergent, which is sold in liquid or powder form, to the wash water.
The first English patent under the category of washing machines was issued in 1691. A drawing of an early washing machine appeared in the January 1752 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a British publication. Jacob Christian Schäffer‘s washing machine design was published 1767 in Germany. In 1782, Henry Sidgier issued a British patent for a rotating drum washer, and in the 1790s Edward Beetham sold numerous “patent washing mills” in England. One of the first innovations in washing machine technology was the use of enclosed containers or basins that had grooves, fingers, or paddles to help with the scrubbing and rubbing of the clothes. The person using the washer would use a stick to press and rotate the clothes along the textured sides of the basin or container, agitating the clothes to remove dirt and mud. This crude agitator technology was hand-powered, but still more effective than actually hand-washing the clothes.
More advancements were made to washing machine technology in the form of the rotative drum design. Basically, these early design patents consisted of a drum washer that was hand-cranked to make the wooden drums rotate. While the technology was simple enough, it was a milestone in the history of washing machines, as it introduced the idea of “powered” washing drums. As metal drums started to replace the traditional wooden drums, it allowed for the drum to turn above an open fire or an enclosed fire chamber, raising the water temperature for more effective washes.
It would not be until the 19th century when steam power would be used in washing machine designs.
In 1862, a patented “compound rotary washing machine, with rollers for wringing or mangling” by Richard Lansdale of Pendleton, Manchester, was shown at the 1862 London Exhibition.
The first United States Patent titled “Clothes Washing” was granted to Nathaniel Briggs of New Hampshire in 1797. Because of the Patent Office fire in 1836, no description of the device survives. Invention of a washing machine is also attributed to Watervliet Shaker Village, as a patent was issued to an Amos Larcom of Watervliet, New York, in 1829, but it is not certain that Larcom was a Shaker. A device that combined a washing machine with a wringer mechanism did not appear until 1843, when Canadian John E. Turnbull of Saint John, New Brunswick patented a “Clothes Washer With Wringer Rolls. “During the 1850s, Nicholas Bennett from the Mount Lebanon Shaker Society at New Lebanon, New York, invented a “wash mill”, but in 1858 he assigned the patent to David Parker of the Canterbury Shaker Village, where it was registered as the “Improved Washing Machine”.
Margaret Colvin invented the Triumph Rotary Washer, which was exhibited in the Women’s Pavilion at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. At the same Exhibition, the Shakers won a gold medal for their machine.
Electric washing machines were advertised and discussed in newspapers as early as 1904. Alva J. Fisher has been incorrectly credited with the invention of the electric washer. The US Patent Office shows at least one patent issued before Fisher’s US patent number 966677 (e.g. Woodrow’s US patent number 921195). The “inventor” of the electric washing machine remains unknown.
US electric washing machine sales reached 913,000 units in 1928. However, high unemployment rates in the Depression years reduced sales; by 1932 the number of units shipped was down to about 600,000.
It is presumed that the first laundromat opened in Fort Worth, Texas in 1934. It was run by Andrew Clein. Patrons used coin-in-the-slot facilities to rent washing machines. The term “laundromat” can be found in newspapers as early as 1884 and they were widespread during the Depression. England established public wash rooms for laundry along with bath houses throughout the 19th century.
Washer design improved during the 1930s. The mechanism was now enclosed within a cabinet, and more attention was paid to electrical and mechanical safety. Spin dryers were introduced to replace the dangerous power mangle/wringers of the day.
By 1940, 60% of the 25,000,000 wired homes in the United States had an electric washing machine. Many of these machines featured a power wringer, although built-in spin dryers were not uncommon.