Who Invented The Washing Machine? Meet Your Washer’s Amazing Ancestors

| | March 11, 2024

For way too long (think thousands of years), women and children had to slap laundry against rocks next to a river and later, work their hands into early arthritis with a scrub board. 

Thanks to one guy’s lightbulb moment, those days are long gone. Well, not as long as one might think. The act of hurling laundry into a tub that does most of the work is barely 250 years old. 

We owe it all to the man who invented the washing machine and the like-minded individuals who improved on the concept until the automatic washer (and even dryer) were born. So, let’s meet John Tyzacke and his curious device!

Well, Maybe It’s Not John Tyzacke

Rumour has it that the earliest washing device was not the brainchild of John Tyzacke but an Italian called Jacopo Strada (1515–1588). 

Strada was a gifted goldsmith and antique dealer. He was also the official architect of three Roman emperors. With such an illustrious CV sheet, one can see why the rumour might be true! Unfortunately, only a couple of books whisper about Strada and there is no solid evidence that his invention took off at the time. 

The Strada Washing Machine

Strada’s attempt to freshen laundry without a rock is described in two books. The Craft of Laundering (Ancliffe Prince) and Save Women’s Lives (Lee Maxwell) mentions something that none of us would recognize as a washing machine today. 

The object was a trough filled with water and warmed by a kiln below. The unlucky person doing the chore had to beat the water and operate a handwheel to work the device. While this was undoubtedly better than scrubbing a smock in a river, this device still required a lot of physical effort.

READ MORE: Who Invented Water? History of the Water Molecule

The World-Changing Idea was a Multi-Tasker Dream

The official history of the washing machine seems to begin with patent 271. This was the number that British inventor John Tyzacke received for his machine in 1691. 

To many, the Tyzacke machine is seen as the world’s first real washing machine but the truth was more remarkable. The so-called “engine” beat the nonsense out of a lot of stuff. This included minerals to break them apart, preparing leather, pounding seeds or charcoal, refining pulp for paper and washing laundry by hitting the clothes and raising the water. 

The Schäffer Tweak

Jacob Schäffer (1718 – 1790) was a creative and busy man. The German-born scholar was fascinated with fungi and discovered heaps of new species. Besides being an author, he was also a professor, a pastor and an inventor. Schäffer was a stellar inventor especially in the area of paper production. But it was his design for a washing machine that he published in 1767 that earned him a place in the history books. 

Schäffer was inspired by another machine from Denmark which, in turn, was based on a British creation not unlike the Yorkshire Maiden. In 1766, he published his version (apparently with several improvements). Despite all the tweaks, somebody still had to worry the laundry inside the tub with a crank.

The invention enjoyed more success than John Tyzacke’s. Schäffer himself made sixty washing machines and Germany continued to make more for at least a century after that. 

The First Rotating Drum Machine

The first rotating drum machine was not automatic but it was certainly a step in the right direction! Henry Sidgier registered his invention in 1782 for which he received English patent 1331. 

The Sidgier Drum

Sidgier’s rotary washing machine consisted of a wooden barrel with rods. It also had a crank to help turn the drum. As the drum turned, the water flushed through the rods and washed the laundry. 

The Mysterious Briggs Machine

One of the first US patents for a washing machine was granted in 1797. The inventor was a man called Nathaniel Briggs of New Hampshire. Today, we have no idea what this washing machine looked like because, in 1836, a huge fire tore through the Patent Office. Many records were lost, including the description of Briggs’ invention.

Patent 3096

Seven years after the fire destroyed the work of Briggs, another patent for a washing machine was granted to an American – Jno Shugert of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania. It was US Patent 3096 and thankfully, a good description of the device exists today. 

The Shugert Machine

Shugert combined what he called a “fiat washboard with a box.” His design claimed that the device could wash clothing without harm. In other words, the fabrics were not unduly rubbed or pressed during the washing process. 

To use the machine, Shugert advised soaping the clothing beforehand and put them inside the box before filling it with water. Working the handles of the washboard, the laundry was agitated back and forth, constantly kept in motion until they were spanking clean. Minus the rock spanking. 

The Story of James King and Hamilton Smith

These guys never worked together but they were both American inventors working on their own designs for a great washing machine. 

James King was the first to file a patent in 1851 but did not finalize his machine until 1874. Hamilton Smith’s efforts landed in between those two times. He patented his machine in 1858 and in its final form. 

The King Device

This washing machine greatly reduced the physical effort that women had to exert in order to wash clothes. It was still hand-powered but only at the start of a laundry session. The main features included a wooden drum, a wringer, and a crank that activated an engine. This engine is perhaps the reason why some consider King’s washer as the first machine to be rightfully viewed as the earliest “ancestor” of modern washing machines. 

The Smith Device

Team Smith claims that Hamilton Smith is the real inventor of the washing machine. While this is debatable, Smith did achieve something that no one else had. He created the first rotary washing machine in the world, opening the door to spinning machines for the first time. 

A Footnote Called William Blackstone

Poor Willam Blackstone certainly doesn’t deserve to be called a “footnote”, especially when one considers how he kindly tried to help his wife. During the 19th century, when Smith and King created their machines, there wasn’t really a version for domestic use. Most washers were created for commercial purposes only. 

However, William Blackstone wanted to create something more affordable and less unwieldy. So, in 1874, he created the first machine for domestic use in order to lighten his wife’s washing chores. 

The First Electric Washing Machine (Finally!)

The year was 1901. That’s right – the electric washing machine has existed for only 120 years. The inventor responsible for this industrial revolution was a man called Alva Fisher. The Chicago native received the US Patent 966,677 that year and all washer folks never looked back. 

The Fisher Machine

The world’s first electric washing machine was sold to the public under the brand name “Thor.” It had a lot in common with today’s appliances. The drum machine was powered by an electric motor and every now and again, the drum would reverse its direction.

The Future of the Washing Machine

The washing machine of the future is looking better than ever. Many inventors are drawing on genius ideas to turn these appliances into modern marvels that will make laundry day a fascinating experience (or less of a drag, certainly). 

A Glimpse At Tomorrow’s Tumblers

Some concepts are already available to the public, like the iBasket. This washing machine eliminates the chore of hauling dirty clothes from the laundry hamper to the washer. The appliance is disguised as a laundry basket and once full, it automatically starts the washing and drying process. 

The future of the washing machine is also heavily influenced by style as much as by functionality. Among the upcoming designs are washers that will no longer be an eyesore in the home, including a drum that is kept in a statue-like stand and spun by magnetism. It’s so ultra-modern that visitors might mistake it for decor.

Besides washers that resemble art, another design that is also making headway is the wall-mounted machine. These futuristic-looking washers are designed to work effectively in smaller apartments (or homes that want that space-ship atmosphere!). 

At the end of the day, the future of the washing machine is an exciting one. Cleaning innovations such as laundry detergent sheets and driving internal innovations and design considerations are evolving these once boring machines into stunning objects that can process laundry cleaner than ever before, and perhaps most importantly; they lean towards eco-friendly designs that save water and electricity.

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