Monday, 3 February 2020

Lawn Mower (1830), Sewing Machine (1830), Dishwasher (1850), Vacuum Cleaner (1860) and Hair Dryer (1890)

In these days of home automation and snazzy gadgets, we don’t always realise that some of the things we use on a regular basis have their origins a surprisingly long time ago.

Let’s start with the lawn mower. The first one was invented in 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding in Gloucestershire, UK. Pushed along by hand, the original lawn mower combined rotating blades and a roller which is pretty similar to the setup of a modern rotary lawnmower. Before this, grass had to be cut with a scythe which was both back-breaking work and also didn’t result in a very closely cut lawn. Although this still involved a fair bit of manual labour, the lawnmower could cut larger areas better and more quickly. Crucially, this enabled the creation of smooth sports pitches for games such as cricket or football too.

The same year saw the introduction of the first usable sewing machine, invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier in France, although other inventors had been working on their own versions for decades. Thimonnier’s machine used a needle with a barb which enabled a simple chain stitch to be created. The new invention was put to work in a factory making uniforms for the French army, however angry tailors destroyed the machines in 1831 because they were fearful for their jobs. Undeterred, other inventors continued to develop the idea and the within a few decades rival manufacturers fought it out in a thriving marketplace.

Although the lawn mower and sewing machine quickly developed into recognisable modern products. The first dishwasher – invented in 1850 by Joel Houghton in the US – took a rather longer time to develop into something practical. The first dishwasher was crank-operated and basically just splashed water on the dishes. It was the 1920s until dishwashers started to look anything like modern ones, and it was a century after Houghton’s invention that they started to be commonplace in more wealthy markets such as the United States.

A trio of "Green" lawnmowers from 1890 - functionally similar to the Budding device, a copy of Thimonnier's original sewing machine, hand-powered dishwasher from 1860

Vacuum cleaners had a similarly slow start. Perhaps the first recognisable device was invented by Daniel Hess of the United States in 1860. Combining a set of brushes and a bellows, Hess’s creation worked best if you had four arms. Nonetheless the idea evolved and got more usable, and by the beginning of the 20th Century the first recognisable and practical vacuum cleaners emerged.

Finally, another product that took a long time to become an everyday item was the hair dryer. The first commercial version was invented in France by Alexander Godefroy, it was basically a pipe connected to the chimney of a gas stove. The person having their hair dried had to sit next to the stove, and the whole thing sounds rather dangerous. By the 1920s hand-held electric hair dryers began to emerge, but they remained quite dangerous for a long time because electricity and water can be a lethal combination.

Model of Hess's vacuum cleaner, gas hair-dryer (date unknown)

Although labour-saving devices have certainly saved a lot of hard work in the home, some things remain resistant to automatic. Ironing for example. But it turns out that this particular tedious task may be done by machine too in the near future.

Image credits:
Green Lawnmower (1890) - Science Museum
Copy of Thimonnier's sewing machine (1930) – Science Museum 
Hand-powered dishwasher circa 1860 – Daderot via Wikimedia Commons
Model of Daniel Hess’s carpet sweeper (1860) - Underneaththesun via Wikimedia Commons
Gas Hairdryer – Alex Liivet via Flickr

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