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24 Nov 2006

Thank God for the Washing Machine…

washingmachine I write this post somewhat haggard and bleary eyed. One of the joyful spinoffs of fatherhood is those nights where one or more of your children are up vomiting all night. Last night was a supreme exhibition of synchronised vomiting, 2 children awake most of the night, copious puke and very little sleep. Now, the morning after the night before (or something), having spent some rather unpleasant time rinsing sheets and towels, I am reminded of a discussion I had while teaching on the Life After Oil course at Schumacher College this week (of which more in later posts). A post-peak world will, by necessity, mean less electronic ‘stuff’, and while I would reluctantly but understandingly kiss goodbye to mobile phones, TVs, computers and toasted sandwich machines, you would need a crowbar to separate me from my washing machine.

wash1One of the oral histories I have been doing touched on clothes washing. The woman I was talking to talked about how she washed her 4 childrens’ clothes in a tub with water she heated on a gas stove, and then hung it all up to dry in the flat they lived in. This was only 50 years ago. She was unphased by how much work it was and said that’s just what you had to do. The washing machine of course, perhaps more than any other applicance, freed women from the drudgery of housework, and is perhaps the single most important invention of the 20th century.

The problem really kicks in with the fact that we all need to have one in each of our houses. Washing machines are far more efficient when they are shared, and are part of highly energy efficient laundrettes (as set out in Ernst U.von Weizsacker’s Factor Four, I think they have done these at BedZed. It may be that we will all have to go back to the mangle and hours and hours of washing by hand, and as a single person I would be unphased by this, but as a family man I sit here looking at this pile of revolting washing and have to say, thank God for the washing machine.

Categories: Energy, Peak Oil, Technology

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Tom Atkins
24 Nov 12:06pm

Sorry to hear about the puking Rob!

That’s quite a statement you made – “perhaps the single most important invention of the 20th century”!

The ‘lover of a good challenge’ in me instantly set out to find something more important… but I’m struggling! Of course it does depend on one’s outlook and is highly subjective… My criteria would be ‘inventions that free humans from daily drudgery without adverse impacts on sustainability’. Hence, whilst ‘nuclear weapons’ are obviously very important – they’re not very useful. This list from Wikipedia is a good starting point.

Some people would argue that things like the Haber process (for making Nitrogen fertilisers) are very important – but in my view, anything that leads to increased population should be discounted!

I was tempted to say ‘LSD’ but that would be silly! As would the ‘bazooka’ or the ‘leaf blower’…

As a computer type it’s interesting how highly rated the various IT related inventions are in many lists. But in the big scheme of things they fall short for me. As IT doesn’t really remove drudgery and toil.

I did wonder about ‘Permaculture’ – but it’s not really an invention in the sense discussed.

So perhaps you’re right – I hereby cast my vote for most important invention (as loosely defined above) of the 20th century as ‘Washing Machine’ too – unless someone can convince me otherwise!

Tom Atkins
24 Nov 12:22pm

I forgot to mention ‘antibiotics’ – very important, but perhaps more of a ‘discovery’ than an invention…

25 Nov 6:12am

No, don’t agree Rob, I could go without my washing machine but not my refrigerator. Think of all the problems in keeping food from going off if we didn’t have them.

Admittedly you were probably biased by the piles of puked-on clothes, but that’s not a common scenario (at least for your sake, I hope not). Keeping food from going off is a common scenario, everyday in fact.

My vote goes to the frig.

Tom Atkins
25 Nov 6:23am

The first vapour based Refrigerator was invented in 1805. Anyone else for 20th century inventions?

Is the washing machine really the best humanity could do in the most explosive century of growth we’re ever likely to have?!

28 Nov 4:02pm

I’d recommend a spin drier as a relatively low tech alternative to a washing machine. Simple and robust with no fancy circuitry to go wrong. It does use electricity but enables one to wash clothes with very litte water, by spinning them well before each successive rinse. Less rinsing water is needed than with washing by hand, because the spinning gets rid of much more of the soap than wringing does. You can catch the rinse water to use for the next batch, and so do two loads with not much more water than the one load. I recently bought one for £90 from a high street shop. And I’m sure a mechanically minded person could rig up a bicycle operation for spinning it without electricity.

28 Nov 10:58pm

Surely there are alternatives to fridges such as larders and buying goods daily. Since most of us don’t have larders what is a good modern, probably outdoor equivalent for say the 9 months of the year that heat is not (yet) a problem?

stormsmith nomi
4 Dec 11:31am

I have lived in a caravan for nearly five years without a fridge, washing machine or bathroom. I manage to keep clean by using the showers at the leisure centre and using the laundrette. I only miss the fridge in the summer, when it is easier not to drink milk.I was suprised at how easily i adapted to this after living with these converiences all of my life,

5 Dec 11:48am

I used to think fridges were essential, then I read about the Zeer pot. They’re reputed to keep things cooler than submerging them in water. I really want to try one of these out, because it seems like a really good solution to keeping milk, eggs and cheese cool.

6 Dec 5:02am

It’s not phase but faze: to disturb the composure of : DISCONCERT, DAUNT that you mean I think….all according to Merriam-Webster online.


Thanks for the Zeer pot I’ll be looking into these.

7 Dec 6:45pm

The Zeer pot idea does look good – thanks. I reckon it works by the evaporation that takes place through the porous clay of the outer pot. So presumably it would work with, say, an outer (large) clay flower pot and (any?) inner pot with an insulated lid. Placing it in a shady but breezy place should make it more effective. Have put it on my list of things to try this summer. Thanks for the link.

Kathy Mcmahon
8 Dec 12:35pm

As least in my readings, Rob, you are right. Women hated laundry more than any other household task, and anyone with a few pennies to rub together, “sent out” at least some of it, like the bedlinens, first to individual women, and later to laundries.

It was a grueling job, requiring one to lug in loads of water from the well, heat it, and I believe, if my memory serves, it took something like 7 loads of water for each load to “do it right” including blueing and starch, if you followed the household gurus of the day.. It took an entire day, here in the US, Mondays, and we ate the Sunday left-overs.

Public laundries were quite energy efficient, I understand, but just didnt’ make the appliance manufacturers as wealthy as making sure each home had their own, and so it was capitalism, not energy efficiency, that guided that choice.

One thing women of that era had, however, was the ability to chat with each other, on Mondays, over the “clothes lines,” or while lugging yet another pail of water into the house. That stopped when we could do laundry ‘any day’ and in the privacy of our own homes.

Still, it wouldn’t be the first appliance I’d part with.

Tom Atkins
14 Feb 9:22pm

Just had a discussion with my Dad and we concluded that the transistor was probably the most important invention of the 20th century. This is backed up by the consensus on Wikipedia’s entry.

15 Feb 10:17pm

Personally if I had to get rid of all modern appliances except one I would keep the washing machine.

But prior to the washing machine, in warmer countries at least, people went to the river to wash their clothes, or to a communal, purpose built washing place. There they would find either the peace and tranquillity of nature or companionship with the other people doing their washing.

This is not to romanticise the process, I know only too well how much your knuckles can ache with the cold from rinsing clothes in river water. My point is that by making life more comfortable in one respect we have lost some of it’s richness – which on some level we need to be fully alive