Who Invented the Washing Machine and Dryer?

19th century laundry equipment

In much of the Western world, life without washers and dryers is almost unimaginable. But a lot of people had parts in imagining the washer and the dryer to get people to this point.

The Evolution of the Clean Machines

The washing machine and the dryer are relative newcomers in the catalog of human tools. It was fully the 18th century before the daily drudgery of scrubbing the household duds inspired patents and prototypes and improvements that continue to deliver sleek new iterations of both machines today. There was no one moment when washers and dryers appeared, fully formed. They evolved.

1700s to 1800s

Early efforts were not always a resounding success, but the idea of delegating an endless repetitive task to a machine had lasting appeal.

  • rustic wooden washing machine wringer washtub
    1767 - Jacob Christian Schaffer in Germany improved upon a washing tub, claimed it would revolutionize laundry day and reduce the need for lye, fabricated endorsement letters for his invention -- which he publicized widely -- and published his design.
  • 1782 - Henry Sidgier gets the first British patent for a contraption with wooden paddle agitation via hand crank -- the first patented rotating washer.
  • 1797 - Nathaniel C. Briggs is awarded the first U.S. patent for a washer.
  • 1799 - A Monsieur Pochon in France invents the hand-cranked dryer. It is clever but imperfect. The machine was probably called a "ventilator" and consisted of a perforated metal drum that sat over the fire in the hearth on a kind of barbeque spit, and was turned by a crank. Into this drum went your wet wash, which promptly got smoked, often came out sooty, and occasionally caught fire or singed. The concept needed some work.
  • 1843 - John E. Turnbull in Canada obtains a patent for a washer with an attached wringer to squeeze the water out of the clothes. You could feed the wet laundry straight from the tub into the wringer and the water would drip back into the tub -- handy for re-using the same water for the next tub of wash.
  • 1851 - James King in America invents a hand-operated washer with a revolving drum.
  • 1858 - Hamilton Smith created a rotary washing machine that could be reversed. Still hand cranked but now you could swish your socks and sheets back and forth.
  • 1861 - Turnbull's idea gains traction and some refinement. Washer-dryer combos -- washing machines with attached clothes wringers -- are now for sale.
  • 1874 - In Indiana, William Blackstone built a novelty clothes washer for his wife's birthday. In a wooden tub, you hung clothes on small pegs and then a crank let you swish the clothes in the soapy water. It was a neighborhood sensation and Blackstone began making and selling the machines for $2.50.
  • 1892 - George T. Simpson improves upon the "Ventilator." His patented dryer laid out the clothes on a rack and funneled heat from the stove over them -- no soot, less smoke.

Early 1900s Innovations

Wooden tubs were replaced by metal tubs and it was game on for electrified washers and dryers. The machines were still out of reach for many people but the factories of the Industrial Revolution, increasing success in mass production, and improved designs that made all the new-fangled stuff work better and better broadened washer and dryer appeal as the new century dawned.

  • Antique Washing Machine
    1908 - Alva J. Fisher claims credit for the first electric washing machine, although there are challengers, including a Louis Goldenberg, an engineer for Ford Motor Company. Fisher called his machine "Thor," after the Norse god of thunder and lightning. It was pretty sensational. The drum-style galvanized tub was powered by an electric motor. But water dripping from the tub shorted the unprotected motor and shocked the launderer. So, aptly named but not exactly a home run.
  • 1911 - Maytag Corporation, soon to be synonymous with laundry machines, developed wringers powered by electricity. No more hand cranking. Housemaids and mamas everywhere willingly sacrificed upper arm toning.
  • 1915 - Electric dryers were available to the moneyed classes.
  • 1927 - Maytag, on a roll, added agitators to its electric washing machines. Now water was swished through the clothes in the tub. Before this new wrinkle, laundry was dragged by paddles through the tub of water, much tougher on the clothes.
  • 1930 - Designers put motors inside the machine casings. This cut down on wear and tear for the machines. The previously bolted-on motors were prone to delivering shocks and shortened the life of the appliance. "Durable" became the new buzzword.
  • 1937 - Bendix Aviation invents a fully automatic machine - it washes, rinses, and spins or dries clothes in a single cycle. Early models tended to splash observers and performed best when bolted to the floor.
  • 1938 - J. Ross Moore, in partnership with the the Hamilton Manufacturing Company, invents the automatic clothes dryer. It has an interior drum -- a concept still used in today's dryers -- and is powered by either gas or electricity. For an inscrutable reason, doubtless down to marketing, the machine is called the "June Day."

1940s to 2000s

Electric dryers went mainstream in the 1940s. All those women in the workforce during WWII had no time for domestic chores. Efficiency ruled and, once war manufacturing stopped and factories returned to normal production, the marketplace obliged with vigorous competition, making the machines more affordable and reliable. By about 1946, dryers featured timers, moisture exhaust vents, front panel on-off and temperature controls, and cool-down cycles. Returning veterans and their expanding households welcomed the innovations.

  • 1947 - Whirlpool debuts the first top-loading automatic washers. General Electric claims to have introduced the top-loaders at the same time.
  • 1949 - Automatic dryers are invented.
  • 1950s - Manufacturing and machine advances were exploding in the prosperous post-war economy. Automatic washing machines improved -- they were an investment but, increasingly, one everyone wanted for their new home. The washers now featured twin tubs that allowed for a soap/agitation cycle and a rinse/spin cycle -- and a more affordable price.
  • 1959 - Dry sensors are introduced. The regulator turns off the dryer when the machine "senses" that the clothes are dry. This saves energy costs and time, and requires less monitoring of the laundry.
  • 1960s - The permanent press cycle is patented to be added to dryers.
  • Energy efficient washing machine and dryer
    1970s - Dryers continued to debut money-saving features and more sophisticated electronic controlling devices.
  • 1983 - Timers allowed consumers to set the usage times on their dryers. People could schedule their machines to take advantage of lower energy costs or more convenient operating times.
  • 1990s - Energy efficient clothes washers and dryers became popular.
  • 2003 - GE invents a washer and dryer combo that "talks" to each other.

Tech Takes Over

Contemporary washers and dryers come in an infinite variety of configurations, from compact, all-in-one, mini-washer-dryer units to energy-efficient, water-saving models, to "smart" washers, LCD touchscreens, designer colors, LED panel lighting, and noise and vibration reduction. The days of hand-cranking wooden wash tubs and clumsy wringers and manglers are a quaint note in the history books.

Who Invented the Washing Machine and Dryer?