From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The Bendix Automatic Washing Machine was broadcast on 25th September 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
When the Bendix automatic washing machine was launched in 1937 it changed the way we looked at domestic laundry. It not only simplified a laborious task, it also established a design language for domestic appliances. There was a porthole door at the front, two simple switches to set timing and temperature, and soap was poured in through a small flap on the top. This clean-cut simplicity took its styling cues from car design of the time, where car bodies were becoming more enclosed and streamlined. Here, everything was out of sight except for the glass porthole which allowed the thrill of seeing one’s laundry going through its motions. This became the norm for domestic appliances in general, everything sheathed in a metal case, often enamelled white, so that they became known as white goods.
The Bendix’s brilliance was in how it could be loaded, switched on and left to do its job, leaving the housewife with more time to do other things, such as fight for female emancipation. It’s easy to forget what a step-forward these things were. Especially as the history of the washing machine goes back centuries, with numerous ideas attempting to solve the issue of heating water and finding what shape tub removed dirt in the best way. By the 1850s, for instance, the mangle was the new miracle appliance, its hand-cranked rollers making it the best way to squeeze excess water from wet washing, and its use persisted well into the twentieth century.
Electricity changed everything. Alva Fisher credited himself as the inventor of the first commercial electric washing machine but it’s a contested claim, given there was an earlier patent application from an engineer at the Ford company. Nevertheless, the Thor electric washing machine was released to the market in 1907. It had some issues, not least the fact that water dripped on its electric motor, making washing day a perilous task. It looked awkward, too, with its various pulleys and belts, and it still required someone to stand over it. But it paved the way for other electric machines, many of them equally ungainly. The Bendix’s sleek new look changed that as did its ability to automatically click through wash, rinse and spin cycles. Its drum was set on its side so that less water and less soap were needed than top-loaders which fully immersed their washing, although this wasn’t a new idea. In 1792 a British inventor called Henry Sidgier took out a patent for a drum that rotated using a hand crank so this was a kind of update.
The Bendix didn’t change the world but it was an important staging post that opened the way to further innovation. That evolution continued, with computerisation becoming normal at the end of the century, and new ideas today such as using sound vibrations to remove dirt particles. The story is far from over. In other words, just like the Bendix, it’s just clicking into another part of the cycle, as progress automatically does.
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