Appliances: The History and Advancements of the Washer and Dryer

From scrubbing clothes by hand against stones, the invention of the scrub board in 1797 was only a slight improvement. In the 1800s, hand-turned drums were the beginning of the washing machine, as we know it today. Still it wasn't until William Blackstone designed the first hand-driven washing machine for home use in 1874 that technology began the fast leap forward that would combine with the invention of the dryer to revolutionize the way laundry is done. Today, nearly every home has a washer and dryer. Even though the basic design of the dryer has not changed much in hundreds of years, changes are in the making. New technologies and designs for dryers that use solar power or microwaves may soon make the traditional tumble dryer as obsolete as the scrub board.

The Washing Machine

The washing machine radically changed how people did laundry. Prior to the invention of the washing machine, doing laundry took enormous amounts of time and energy as water often had to be pumped or drawn from a well, carried in, heated, clothes scrubbed, rinsed, and wrung out by hand. Even though the earliest designs were hand-cranked drums, it was a step in the right direction. As wringers were added to the machines in 1861 and the electric wringer style washer became available in 1911, the washing machine allowed laundry to be done more efficiently than ever. Today’s washing machines are designed with convenience and energy efficiency in mind. Spin cycles have replaced wringers and automatic timing run by microchips mean there is no need to provide direct hands on labor. The choice between top loading and front loading washers or even a combination washer/dryer that does away with the need to transfer clothes from one machine to another has continued to lighten the washday load.

  • History of Washing: How did we improve our washing methods since prehistory? (PDF) – In this document, Proctor and Gamble cover an extensive history that logically merges the historical use and development of soaps with the advances in washing clothes and the invention of the washing machine.
  • Who Invented the Electric Washing Machine? (PDF) – There is conflicting information in clearly documenting the history of the washing machine. This document looks at how historians misunderstand or misuse patents when assigning recognition to inventors without looking at other documentation. While many sources credit Alvin J Fisher with inventing the electric washing machine in 1910 based on his patent, there is evidence that electric washing machines were in use at least as early as 1900.
  • Thor Washing Machine – Alvin J Fisher, an engineer at the Hurley Electric Laundry Equipment Company in Chicago is credited with inventing the Thor Washing Machine. The Hurley Company first manufactured the first electric driven washing machine in 1907. A patent for the design was not granted to Fisher until 1910. That delay may have led to confusion over who designed the earliest first electric washing machine.
  • Washing Machine – This page offers a good comparison of the changing designs leading to today’s modern washers. The difference between washing actions of top loading and front loading washing machines is also detailed on this page.
  • Simply WashSimply Wash shares a very brief overview on the history of the washing machine. This page does show a couple examples of early washing machines. Since these first washers are rarely seen, these pictures are helpful in understanding how far our modern washers have come.
  • History of Washing Machines up to 1800: Early washing machines, inventors, advertising, washerwomen – This site looks at the way the invention of the washing machine impacted the economic future of washerwomen who depended on doing laundry for other people. It is interesting to note that though the earliest washing machines appeared in the 1800s, they were primarily marketed to private institutions and the wealthy before most individuals even knew there was such a devise to make doing laundry easier.
  • History of the Washing Machine & Gender Technology. – Is the washing machine ‘gender technology’? This question arises because throughout the ages and still today, laundry is considered a woman’s chore. This page looks at the way various countries view the advantages and disadvantages of washing machines. Early advertising for washers in the US were targeted at women.
  • Washing Machine and Combo History-This page includes a synopsis of development of the washing machine and dryer. A clear timeline from scrub board to modern day machines is also given.

The Dryer

We consider a solar powered dryer today as a new innovation in the up and coming future of drying machines, but solar power was the first source of energy used to dry clothes as people washed, rinsed and wrung out clothes by hand and hung them over rocks, tree branches or later clotheslines to dry in the sun. The first dryer invented was a simple wooden rack to hang clothes near a fire to dry. The first mention of a modern type dryer appeared in the 1800s when a Frenchman by the name of Pochon invented a vented-barrel-shaped drum called a ventilator to dry clothes. Clothes were placed inside the drum and the drum was turned by hand over an open fire. It was not a very reliable method or machine, but opened the doors for future designs. Though there seems to be some controversy over the patent description of George T Sampson’s dryer, he is credited with a ventilator dryer using a stove as its heat source. By 1915, the electric clothes dryer was introduced but it was not until the Hamilton Manufacturing Company produced the first automatic dryer in 1938 that the use of the dryer started to become known. From 1938 through the 1960s, the cost of owning a dryer remained out of reach for most people with a dryer in the 1950s costing the equivalent of $1600 in today’s money. New technologies, production methods, and lower costs put the dryer in more homes by the late 1990s. As technology continues to open the doors to the use of cost efficient designs, the use of new technology is changing the dryer, as we now know it. Using solar dryers, vent-less dryers, also known as compression or heap pump dryers, and dryers that make use of microwave technology may soon make the tumble dryer simply another part of history. The dryer that has not changed much in design or function in over two hundred years is going through rapid change in both design and energy use. These changes will provide a more efficient use of time and resources.

  • Two Rivers- Birthplace of the First Automatic Clothes Dryer – Two Rivers, North Dakota was the home of the Hamilton Manufacturing Company when Ross Moore decided to invent an automatic means of drying clothes. He originally started working on the idea in the 1920s but it was not until he teamed up with the Hamilton Manufacturing Company that the first automatic dryer was produced in 1938.
  • Who Invented the Clothes Dryer? – A Frenchman named Pochon is credited with inventing the first clothes dryer around 1800. His invention was a vented barrel hand turned over an open fire. Various adaptations were made on the dryer designs leading to the dryers we use today.
  • Hedonic Quality Adjustment Methods For Clothes Dryers In the U.S. CPI – This report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes a brief history of the clothes dryer and particularly relates how the costs of purchasing a dryer has decreased. In the 1950s, a dryer cost the equivalent of $1600 today and only ten percent of households used them. By 1997 seventy-eight percent of households owned a dry as the cost had fallen to an average $370. The report also includes a table of Brief Chronology of Clothes Dryer Improvements
  • Microwave Clothes Drying – On the Verge of Commercial Reality (PDF) – It is certainly a long way from the ventilator-type dryer of 1800 that had to be hand-turned over an open fire, but a dryer that works using microwaves may soon be the latest design in dryers. M. Levison first proposed the concept for a microwave dryer in 1968, but until recently, technology had been unable to address safety concerns.
  • Solar Dryer – A project of the Pennsylvania State University Solar Decathlon Team, the Solar Dryer is not available to the public, yet its design may very well make that technology available in the future. With technology going green to conserve natural resources, the solar dryer may be the answer to future homeowners.
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of Spin and Tumble Dryers – Spin dryers extract much more water from clothes in minutes than most tumble dryers can handle in a normal one-hour cycle. The energy savings are a huge plus in considering a spin dryer. At this time, spin dryers do not get clothes one hundred percent dry, so clothing needs to be hung to finish drying or tumbled in a traditional dryer for a few minutes.
  • Condensing (Vent-less) Clothes Dryers – The most commonly available condensing dryer is the combination washer/dryer. Energy efficiency during the wash cycle is improved yet the drying cycle seems to be less efficient in drying and energy use.
  • Heat Pump Dryers (PDF)– A comparison of Heat Pump Dryers and Mechanical and Steam Compression dryers