Xinhua/Chen Yehua
Xinhua/Chen Yehua

Why it took the washing machine so long to catch on

By Justin Fox Time of article published Feb 25, 2017

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Today I learned that the washing machine is more than 250 years old.

After reading the lead article in this morning's Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, I briefly thought it was exactly 250 years old. This purported Feb. 23 anniversary is being celebrated all over the German news media this week, but it can't be right, given that there's a full copy online  of the book in which German pastor and professor Jacob Christian Schaeffer made his invention known, and it's dated Oct. 16, 1766.

Not only that, but Schaeffer also writes in the book's foreword that he got the idea from a magazine article about an English washing machine that some guy in Copenhagen had successfully reconstructed. What's more, according to the German Wikipedia page on washing machines -- which is much better on the device's early history than the English-language one -- a man named John Tizack was granted a British patent in 1691 for an "engine to be worked by one or more men" that could be: “applicable to the raiseing of water, washing of cloathes, milling of sugar canes, pounding of minerals, and pounding and bruising of all sorts of seeds, pounding charcoale to make powder of, and pounding and making rags fit to make paper and the like.”

Schaeffer had actually been looking for a better way to make paper, and he thought the washing-machine design he read about in the Berliner Magazin might serve that purpose. The device is a bit reminiscent of a hand-crank ice-cream maker, minus the ice: 

The illustration is from Schaeffer's 1766 book, which has such a great title that it's worth attempting to translate in full: "The Convenient and in All Household Aspects Highly Beneficial Washing Machine: How This Was Established in Experiments, How the Machine Can Be Used More Safely and Expediently, and How It Could Be Altered and Improved." In it Schaeffer reports that he (or, more likely, a servant) had rinsed and soaped some dirty clothes, deposited them in the machine, "left them to their fate for 12 minutes" (while someone, presumably that servant, turned the crank) and then discovered to all-around amazement that all the dirt was gone.

Schaeffer's subsequent publications on the topic included "Letters from a Woman to Her Friend in St** Concerning the Washing Machine, in Which Not Only a Better Version of Said Machine but also a Triple Washing Machine Is Discussed" and "Collected Good and Bad News About the Regensburg Washing Machine, as a Second Supplement to Its Uses and Applications."


As already noted, patents existed back then. They were not, however, granted or enforced in any especially consistent way -- certainly not across national borders. The sort of permissionless tinkering that Schaeffer engaged in was typical of the day. He clearly wasn't looking for exclusive rights, either. A handy-enough person could build his or her own washing machine from the plans described in Schaeffer's books. The man wanted to get the word out, not start a washing-machine factory.

To some extent he succeeded; his design was still being recommended in German publications nearly a century later. But there's little indication that Schaeffer's or anyone else's washing machine took the world by storm in the 1700s or 1800s. The grooved metal washboard, first patented in the US in 1833, seems to have had a far greater impact on household practice. It was cheap, it was durable, and it was a distinct improvement over earlier methods.

It was only with the invention of the electric washing machine by Alva Fisher in Chicago in 1907 that something dramatically better than the washboard came along, and even then it took decades more for the machines to become cheap and reliable enough to change how people cleaned their clothes (and of course in much of the world, washboards still rule). In the U.S., according to a 2013 paper by Benjamin Bridgman of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the big gains in household productivity enabled by the washing machine, dishwasher and other such devices occurred between about 1948 and 1977.

Meanwhile, way back in 1766, Schaeffer was already addressing the potential job-destroying impact of technological progress:

Would not, one might say, the public disclosure and coming introduction of the washing machine injure the livelihoods, the nourishment and the wages of lots of people, namely those who make a living from washing and aren't able or willing to find another way to earn their bread?

His response to this rhetorical question was that no, the machine would allow washerwomen to take on more work and do it with less wear and tear on their bodies. Indeed, the advent of mass clothing production in the 1700s was already dramatically increasing the amount of clothes to be washed.

Meanwhile, according to a futurist cited in the Frankfurter Rundschau in 2015 (I stumbled across the article while looking for today's anniversary piece online), young people are increasingly hiring others to do their wash for them. Quoth Sven Gabor Janszky of the 2b AHEAD ThinkTank in Leipzig: 

Owning a washing machine, which our grandparents' generation felt was a great freedom, is perceived by many in the younger generation to be more of a time-consuming burden.

I don't entirely believe this, but I do think there's an important lesson here about technological change, and how hard it is to predict the adoption of new technologies and their impact on the world. I'll leave it to you to figure out exactly what it is, though.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”


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