Who Invented the Washing Machine?

Ever wondered who the life-saver who invented the washing machine was, transforming a tedious, time-consuming task into a simple push of a button? This groundbreaking invention revolutionized the way we tackle laundry, making it an essential household appliance worldwide.

Our exploration begins with the earliest laundry solutions, precursors to the modern washing machine. We’ll talk about how people managed their clothing before the dawn of mechanization. From there, we delve into the pioneers of the washing machine, examining who invented the first one and the various inventors who contributed to its development. Additionally, we’ll consider the cultural shifts prompted by the washing machine’s widespread adoption, illustrating its impact beyond mere convenience.

who invented the washing machine
Before washing machines, clothes were washed in large tubs, sometimes with a washboard to help get out the dirt and stains

Early Laundry Solutions

Manual Washing Tools

Before the advent of modern washing machines, people used various manual methods to clean their clothes. In many ancient cultures, garments were cleaned by first pounding them on rocks. Then the clothes were rubbed against abrasive sands and streams or rivers were used to wash the dirt away.

Over the centuries, women improved washing results by using natural detergents. The Gauls used a process dating back to 2800 years B.C. They used birch cinders to scrub and clean the material better much like we use laundry soap today. Cinders used in early laundry washing powders were replaced by soda crystals later on.

The Romans, known for their innovations, used a crude form of soap made from ash and animal fat. They also built public laundries (fullonicae in Latin, i.e. fulling mills). Fuller’s herb, aka soapwort, was widely known as the best detergent but for the Romans it was too expensive to import from Syria. So, the Romans used fermented human urine to bleach linen. Urine contains lots of ammonia with is a great bleacher. The collected urine was poured into a tank and the fuller woman (the woman who’s job this was) walked and stomped on the clothes to clean them.

During colonial times, the most common method involved boiling clothes in a large pot and then beating them with a wooden paddle known as a dolly.

The introduction of the washboard marked a significant advancement in laundry technology. Initially made entirely of wood, including the carved, ridged washing surface, the washboard was later enhanced with metal. This tool remained a household staple well into the 19th century, even as other innovations began to appear.

woman washes clothes with washboard, who invented the washing machine
Washboards were a great invention for getting dirt and stains out but they did not reduce the work load by much.

Initial Challenges

The earliest washing machines were rudimentary and hand-operated, consisting of wooden tubs equipped with hand cranks. These machines required significant physical effort, as women typically had to scrub clothes by hand or use a washboard on top of the tub. The process was not only time-consuming but also physically demanding. Sometimes, it took days.

Electricity and running water later played crucial roles in transforming laundry technology. However, the initial electric washing machines presented their own set of challenges. These early models often had motors placed under bowls filled with water, leading to frequent electrical shocks. Despite these difficulties, the push for a more efficient way to handle laundry continued, driven by the clear need to alleviate the arduous nature of wash day.

As society progressed, particularly after World War II, the development of the domestic washing machine began to take shape, significantly altering the landscape of home laundry and paving the way for modern appliances.

Pioneers of the Washing Machine

Significant Inventors

The journey of the washing machine’s invention starts with Jacob Christian Schäffer, who, in 1767, devised an early model that started the future of laundry technology. This German inventor’s machine was a rudimentary hand-cranked wooden device. A few decades later, Nathaniel Briggs entered the spotlight by securing the first U.S. patent for a washing machine in 1797. His design featured a simple wooden box with a hand-turned crank that agitated the clothes inside.

The evolution continued with James King, who in 1851 introduced the first washing machine using a drum, significantly reducing physical exertion when using laundry machines. Following closely, William Blackstone manufactured a machine in 1874 as a birthday gift for his wife, which later entered commercial production. This marked a significant step toward widespread household use.

hand crank laundry washer
A hand crank laundry washer — lots of work still but less than previously.

Early Models

The initial washing machine models were quite basic and required manual operation. The first recorded patent in the U.S. dates back to 1797 when Nathaniel Briggs created a wooden box that agitated clothes through a hand-crank mechanism. By 1830, mechanical washing machines appeared in England, providing a more robust solution for laundry.

Innovations continued with Hamilton Smith’s introduction of rotary washing machines in 1858 and John E. Turnbull’s roller washing machine in 1843, which featured wringers to improve the washing process. In the late 19th century, French manufacturer Flandria launched the “Barboteuse” in 1898, allowing more comfortable home laundry operations compared to traditional laundries. Shaker communities in Pennsylvania built and marketed large wooden washing machines designed to work on a small commercial scale.

Fun Fact
In the 1892, the African-American inventor George T. Sampson got a patent for a clothes dryer. The dryer used the heat from a stove to dry the clothes.

who invented the washing machine, old washer
A pre-electric hand-crank washing machine

Major Technological Breakthroughs

Introduction of Electricity

The evolution of washing machines was significantly propelled by the introduction of electricity into households. Early electric washing machines began appearing in the market around 1904. However, the true inventor of the electric washing machine remains unknown despite various claims. Notably, the Thor washing machine, introduced by Hurley Electric Laundry Equipment Company in 1907, utilized electric motors in a drum-based system, making them one of the earliest, if not the first.

Automation Advances

The drive towards washing machine automation began earnestly in the late 1940s and early 1950s when a surge of U.S. manufacturers started introducing automatic models, primarily the top-loading type. In 1937, Bendix Home Appliances launched the first domestic automatic washing machine, which resembled modern front-loading washers. This period also witnessed the innovation of electromechanical timers by General Electric engineers in 1957, which were crucial for sequencing the washing and extraction processes.

Post-World War II, the development of automatic washing machines accelerated as manufacturers recognized the industry’s potential and future. The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw further advancements with the integration of microcontrollers and, eventually, smart technologies that include WiFi connectivity and remote app control, enhancing user convenience and efficiency.

electric washing machine 1940
One of the first electric washing machines, from around the 1940’s

Cultural Shifts

Changing Gender Roles

The widespread adoption of the washing machine has played a pivotal role in reshaping gender roles within society. Historically, laundry was a labor-intensive task that fell squarely on women, often consuming entire days each week. The mechanization of this chore freed up time and challenged the traditional roles of men and women in the household. This shift contributed to a broader societal change where women increasingly participated in the workforce, altering the conventional dynamics of the breadwinner-homemaker model.

Domestic Life Transformation

The impact of the washing machine on domestic life extends beyond the simple task of cleaning clothes. It has fundamentally changed how households operate, leading to more equitable divisions of labor within the home. Men are now more engaged in domestic tasks, and dual-income households have become more common. This evolution in domestic responsibilities has transformed family dynamics, work-life balance, and the overall perception of domestic societal roles.

Also, the introduction of washing machines and other labor-saving appliances has been linked to economic growth and a decrease in the gender gap. By reducing the time required for household chores, women have been able to pursue employment opportunities, further diminishing traditional gender roles and promoting economic independence.

washing machine 7 Cerioporus rotated e1719594085606
Among the first of the electric washing machines


Who is credited with the creation of the washing machine?

Jacob Christian Schäffer from Germany is recognized for creating the earliest form of the washing machine in 1767. In 1797, Nathaniel Briggs was granted the first patent for a washing machine. Other notable inventors from the 1800s include Hamilton Smith, James King, and William Blackstone, who notably crafted a machine specifically as a birthday gift for his wife.

Who is considered the father of the washing machine?

Jacob Christian Schäffer, who crafted the initial version of the washing machine in 1767, is often referred to as the father of the washing machine. Following him, Nathaniel Briggs, an American, secured the first patent for a washing machine in 1797. It functioned by heating water in a tank, using a lever to agitate the clothes, and then wringing them out between two rollers.

Who developed the electric washing machine?

Although the Thor electric washing machine was invented by Alva J. Fisher and patented on August 9, 1910, it was heavily advertised and became well-known in 1920. This machine marked a significant advancement in the development of automatic washing machines, which had been conceptualized for many years prior.

Who invented the modern washing machine?

Bendix Home Appliances, a subsidiary of Avco, introduced the first domestic automatic washing machine in 1937. In the same year, they filed for a patent, marking a significant milestone in the evolution of home laundry appliances.