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History of the Washing Machine

Updated on July 7, 2010

A washing machine is a a machine for washing clothes or fabrics. The modern electrically powered washing machine eliminates the drudgery of doing laundry by hand or by a manually operated machine.

The automatic washer is by far the most popular and versatile type. After the user opens the top lid, loads articles to be laundered into the wash basket, and sets the controls, the washer fills with water at a selected temperature, washes, rinses, extracts water from the articles, and stops without further attention.

The washing action is accomplished by a finned agitator driven by an electric motor. The agitator creates strong water currents in the wash basket and forces the water through the laundry. Generally, the agitator provides two washing actions—regular and gentle. Regular action is used for cotton, linen, and permanent-press articles, and gentle action is used for delicate fabrics, knitted garments, and washable woolens.

After the wash water is drained, a spray rinse introduces clean water into the wash basket while it is spinning. The rinse water is then extracted by the spinning of the wash basket, which has perforations to pass the water driven outward by the spinning action.

Other features of automatic washers include automatic dispensing of bleach, fabric softener, and detergent; a water-level control; a mixing valve to combine hot and cold water for the proper warm-water temperature; and safety features, such as automatic shutoff if the top lid is opened while the machine is running.

Most automatic washers have controls enabling the user to choose one of three cycles: "regular," for ordinary laundry; "permanent-press," to minimize wrinkle formation in permanent-press fabrics; and "delicate," for fabrics of low strength.

One of the first mechanical washing machines was patented by Hamilton E. Smith of Pittsburgh, Pa., about 1858. His home washer was operated by turning a crank that rotated paddles on a vertical shaft inside a tub filled with water and clothes. However, his machine and other early ones had little success because they were hard on clothes and required tiresome hand operation. For some years before and after the end of the 19th century a family's home washing commonly was done manually by using a water-filled wooden tub, a corrugated washboard, and a rubber-roller wringer.

The first electrically powered washing machine was invented in 1910 by Alva J. Fisher and manufactured in Chicago. Several electric washers were available by World War I, but they did not gain a sizable market until the 1920's. In 1922 the agitator-type washer was invented by Howard Snyder. Made in Newton, Iowa, it gained immediate widespread favor.

The first automatic washer, introduced in 1937, was a front-loading model that took up to 9 pounds (4 kg) of wash in a drum. The drum rotated on a horizontal shaft, washing the articles by tumbling them from the top to the bottom of the water-filled drum. In the late 1940's the first of the modern top-loading, agitator-type automatic washers was introduced. Present-day washing machines are more highly automated and versatile versions of this type.

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