Washing machine

Washing machine

A washing machine, or washer, is a machine designed to clean laundry, such as clothing, towels and sheets. The term is mostly applied only to machines that use water as the primary cleaning solution, as opposed to dry cleaning (which uses alternative cleaning fluids, and is performed by specialist businesses) or even ultrasonic cleaners.

All washer machines work by using mechanical energy, thermal energy, and chemical action. Mechanical energy is imparted to the clothes load by the rotation of the agitator in top loaders, or by the tumbling action of the drum in front loaders. Thermal energy is supplied by the temperature of the wash bath.


- TIrreler Bauerntradition shows an early Miele washer machine in the Roscheider Hof, Open Air Museum
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Clothing had been hand-washed for thousands of years, by flushing water through the fabric to remove loose dirt, rubbing with soap to remove oils and stains, and applying fragrances to cover odours. For particularly dirty clothing caked with mud or dirt, it was necessary to constantly rub and flex the cloth to break apart solids and help the soap penetrate through thick, dry, or sticky layers of soil on the cloth. At first this was done by pounding or rubbing the clothing with rocks in a river, and later developed into the corrugated wash board. In Roman times a fuller would whiten clothing by stomping on it in a bucket full of fermented urine.

Washing machine technology was developed as a way to reduce the drudgery of this scrubbing and rubbing process, by providing an open basin or sealed container with paddles or fingers to automatically agitate the clothing. The earliest machines were often hand-operated but were built with the belief that the machine itself was faster and easier to operate than washing the clothing by hand directly. As electricity was not commonly available until at least 1930, these early machines were often operated by a low-speed single-cylinder hit and miss gasoline engine.

Because water usually had to be heated on a fire for washing, the warm soapy water was precious and would be reused over and over, first to wash the least soiled clothing, then to wash progressively dirtier clothing. The load of soaking wet clothing would be removed, and another load of dirty clothes added to the machine. While the earliest machines were constructed entirely from wood, later machines made of metal permitted a fire to burn below the washtub, to keep the water warm throughout the day's washing.

Removal of soap and water from the clothing after washing was originally a separate process. The soaking wet clothing would be formed into a roll and twisted by hand to extract water. To help reduce this labour, the wringer/mangle was developed, which uses two rollers under spring tension to squeeze water out of the clothing. Each piece of clothing would be fed through the wringer separately. The first wringers were hand-operated, but were eventually included as a powered attachment above the washer tub. The wringer would be swung over the wash tub so that extracted wash water would fall back into the tub to be reused for the next wash load.

The modern process of water removal by spinning did not come into use until electric motors were developed. Spinning requires a constant high-speed power source, and was originally done in a separate device known as an extractor. A load of washed clothing would be transferred from the wash tub to the extractor basket, and the water spun out. These early extractors were often dangerous to use since unevenly distributed loads would cause the machine to shake violently. Many efforts have been made to counteract the shaking of unstable loads, first by mounting the spinning basket on a free-floating shock-absorbing frame to absorb minor imbalances, and a bump switch to detect severe movement and stop the machine so that the load can be manually redistributed. Many modern machines are equipped with a sealed ring of liquid around the top of the basket that works to counteract any imbalances.

What is now referred to as an automatic washer was at one time referred to as a washer/extractor, which combines the features of these two devices into a single machine, plus also includes the ability to fill and drain water by itself. It is possible to take this a step further, to also merge the automatic washing machine and clothes dryer into a single device, but this is generally uncommon because the drying process tends to use much more energy than using two separate devices; a combined washer/dryer not only must dry the clothing, but also needs to dry out the wash chamber itself.

Washing machine milestones

The first English patent under the category of Washing and Wringing Machines was issued in 1691. A drawing of an early washing machine appeared in the January 1752 issue of "The Gentlemen's Magazine," a British publication. In Germany, Jacob Christian Schäffer's washing machine design was published in 1767. In 1782 Henry Sidgier was issued a British patent for a rotating drum washer.

The first United States Patent titled "Clothes Washing" was granted to Nathaniel Briggs of New Hampshire in 1797. Fire destroyed the patent office and no description of the device exists so it is not known what kind of washing device Briggs invented. A device that combined a washing machine with a wringer mechanism did not appear until 1843 when John E. Turnbull of Saint John, New Brunswick patented a "Clothes Washer With Wringer Rolls.

Electric Washing Machines were advertised and discussed in newspapers as early as 1904. Louis Goldenberg of New Brunswick, New Jersey invented the electric washing machine around the late 1800s to early 1900s. He worked for the Ford Motor Company at that time, and all inventions that were created while working for Ford under contract, belonged to Ford. The patent would have been listed under Ford and or Louis Goldenberg. Alva J. Fisher has been incorrectly credited with the invention of the electric washer. The US patent office shows at least one patent issued before Mr. Fisher's US patent number 966677 (e.g. Woodrow's US patent number 921195).

US electric washing machine sales reached 913,000 units in 1928. However, high unemployment rates in the Depression years hit sales; by 1932 the number of units shipped was down to about 600,000.

The first laundromat opened in Fort Worth, Texas in 1934. It was run by Andrew Clein. Patrons used coin-in-the-slot facilities to rent washing machines. The term laundromat can be found in newspapers as early as 1884 and they were widespread during the depression. It is almost impossible to determine who had the "first" laundromat. England established public "wash rooms" for laundry along with bath houses throughout the nineteenth century.

Washer design improved during the 1930s; the mechanism was now enclosed within a cabinet; more attention was paid to electrical safety; spin dryers were introduced, to replace the dangerous power wringers of the day.

Early automatic washing machines were usually connected to the water supply via temporary slip-on connectors to the sink taps. Later, permanent connections to both the hot and cold water supplies became the norm. Most modern front-loading European machines now only have a cold water connection (i.e. cold fill) and rely completely on electric heaters to raise the water temperature.

By 1940, 60% of the 25,000,000 wired homes in the United States had an electric washing machine. Many of these machines featured a power wringer, although built-in spin dryers were not uncommon.

Bendix introduced the first automatic washing machine in 1937, having applied for a patent in the same year. In appearance and mechanical detail, this first machine is not unlike the front loading automatic washers produced today. Although it included many of the today's basic features, the machine lacked any drum suspension and therefore had to be anchored to the floor to prevent "walking".

Many of these early automatic machines had coin-in-the-slot facilities and were installed in the basement laundry rooms of apartment houses. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, US domestic washer production had to be suspended for the duration of World War II. However, many US appliance manufacturers were given permission to undertake the research and development of washers during the war years. Many took the opportunity to develop automatic machines, realising that these represented the future for the industry.

An improved front loading automatic model, the Bendix Deluxe (which retailed at $249.50) was introduced in 1947.

General Electric introduced the first top loading automatic also in 1947. This machine had many of the features that are incorporated into modern machines.

A large number of US manufacturers introduced competing automatic machines (mainly of the top loading type) in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Several manufacturers even produced semi-automatic machines, where the user had to intervene at one or two points in the wash cycle. A common semi-automatic type (available from Hoover in the UK until at least the 70's) included 2 tubs: one with an agitator or impeller for washing and/or rinsing; another, smaller, tub for water extraction or centrifugal rinsing.

Since their introduction in the late 1930s/mid 1940s, automatic washing machines have relied on mechanical timers to sequence the washing and extraction process. Mechanical timers consist of a series of cams on a common shaft. At the appropriate time in the wash cycle, each cam actuates a switch to engage/disengage a particular part of the machinery (e.g. drain pump motor). The timer shaft is driven by a small electric motor via a reduction gearbox.

On the early mechanical timers the motor ran at a constant speed throughout the wash cycle, although it was possible for the user to truncate parts of the program, by manually advancing the control dial. However, by the 1950s demand for greater flexibility in the wash cycle led to the introduction of electronic timers to supplement the mechanical timer. These electronic timers enable greater variation in such functions as the wash time. With this arrangement, the electric timer motor is periodically switched-off to permit the clothing to soak, and is only re-energised just prior to a micro-switch being engaged/disengaged.

Despite the high cost of automatic washers, manufacturers had difficulty in meeting the demand. Although there were material shortages during the Korean War, by 1953 automatic washing machine sales in the US exceeded those of wringer-type electric machines.

In the UK and in most of Europe, electric washing machines did not become popular until the 1950s. This was largely because of the economic impact of World War II on the consumer market which did not properly recover until the late 1950s. The early electric washers were single tub, wringer-type machines, automatic washing machines being extremely expensive. During the 1960s, twin tub machines briefly became very popular, helped by the low price of the Rolls Razor washers. Automatic washing machines did not become dominant in the UK until well into the 1970s and by then were almost exclusively of the front-loader design.

In early automatic washing machines, any changes in impeller/drum speed were achieved by mechanical means or by a rheostat on the motor power supply. However, since the 1970s electronic control of motor speed has become a common feature on the more expensive models.

Early front loading machines, especially those manufactured in Mediterranean countries (e.g. Italy), had low spin speeds (e.g. 800 rpm or less). Nowadays, a spin speed of 1200 rpm is common and a peak spin speed as high as 1600 rpm is available on some machines. Now models in Europe have speeds of 1800 rpm and one washing machine has a spin speed of 2000 rpm. However, because they were not susceptible to gravitational forces, some early top loading machines had spin speeds in excess of 1000 rpm, although some were as low as 360 rpm.

In the late 1990s, the British inventor James Dyson launched a type of washing machine with two cylinders rotating in opposite directions; which, it is claimed, reduces the wash time and produces cleaner results; however, this machine is not now in production.

In the 1990s, upmarket machines incorporated microcontrollers for the timing process. These proved reliable, so many cheaper machines now incorporate microcontrollers, rather than mechanical timers. Washing machines are a classic application for fuzzy logic.

In 1994, Staber Industries released the System 2000 washing machine, which is the only top loading, horizontal-axis washer to be manufactured in the United States. The hexagonal tub spins like a front loading machine, only using about third of the water as conventional top-loaders. This factor has led to an Energy Star rating for its high efficiency.

In 2001, Whirlpool Corporation introduced the Calypso, the first vertical-axis high efficiency washing machine to be top-loading. A washplate in the bottom of the tub nutated to bounce, shake, and toss the laundry around. As this happened, water containing detergent was sprayed on to the laundry. The machine proved to be good at cleaning but gained a bad reputation due to frequent breakdowns and destruction of laundry and the washer was recalled with a class-action lawsuit and pulled off the market.

In 2006, Sanyo introduced the first drum type washing machine with ‘Air Wash’ function. This washing machine uses only 50L of water in the recycle mode.

In 2008, the University of Leeds created a washing machine that uses only a cup (about ) of water to carry out a full wash. The machine leaves clothes virtually dry, and uses less than 2 per cent of the water and energy otherwise used by a conventional machine. As such, it could save billions of litres of water each year.

Modern machines

Modern washing machines are available in two configurations: top loading and front loading.

The top loading design, most popular in Australia, Canada, the United States and some parts of Europe, places the clothes in a vertically-mounted perforated basket that is contained within a water-retaining tub, with a propeller-like agitator in the center of the bottom of the basket. Clothes are loaded through the top of the machine, which is covered with a hinged door. During the wash cycle, the outer tub is filled with water sufficient to suspend the clothing freely in the basket, and the movement of the agitator pulls the clothing downward in the center towards the agitator paddles. The clothing then moves outward and up the sides of the basket to repeat the process. Top-loaders are not well-suited to cleaning large objects such as pillows or sleeping bags due to the tendency for them to just float on the surface of the water without circulating, and the aggressive agitator action can damage delicate fabrics.

In most top loading washers, if the motor spins in one direction, the gearbox drives the agitator; if the motor spins the other way, the gearbox locks the agitator and spins the basket and agitator together. Similarly if the pump motor rotates one way it recirculates the sudsy water; in the other direction it pumps water from the machine during the spin cycle. Because they usually incorporate a gearbox, clutch, crank, etc, top loading washers are mechanically more complex than front loading machines but are generally lower maintenance since there is no need for a complex door seal (described below).

The front loading design, most popular in Europe and the Middle East, mounts the inner basket and outer tub horizontally, and loading is through a door at the front of the machine. The door often but not always contains a window. Agitation is supplied by the back-and-forth rotation of the cylinder and by gravity. The clothes are lifted up by paddles on the inside wall of the drum and then dropped. This motion flexes the weave of the fabric and forces water and detergent solution through the clothes load. Because the wash action does not require the clothing be freely suspended in water, only enough water is needed to moisten the fabric. Because less water is required, front-loaders typically use less soap, and the aggressive dropping and folding action of the tumbling can easily produce large amounts of foam.

Front-loaders control water usage through the surface tension of water, and the capillary wicking action this creates in the fabric weave. A front-loader washer always fills to the same low water level, but a large pile of dry clothing standing in water will soak up the moisture, causing the water level to drop. The washer then refills to maintain the original water level. Because it takes time for this water absorption to occur with a motionless pile of fabric, nearly all front-loaders begin the washing process by slowly tumbling the clothing under the stream of water entering and filling the drum, to rapidly saturate the dry clothes with water.

Front loading washers are mechanically simple compared to top-loaders, with the main motor normally being connected to the drum via a grooved pulley belt and large pulley wheel, without the need for a gearbox, clutch or crank. But front-load washers suffer from their own technical problems, due to the drum lying sideways. For example, a top loading washer keeps water inside the tub merely through the force of gravity pulling down on the water, while a front-loader must tightly seal the door shut with a gasket to prevent dripping water onto the floor during the wash cycle. This access door is locked shut during the entire wash cycle, since opening the door with the machine in use could result in water gushing out onto the floor. For front-loaders without viewing windows on the door, it is possible to accidentally pinch fabric between the door and the drum, resulting in tearing and damage to the pinched clothing during tumbling and spinning.

Nearly all front-loader washers for the consumer market must also use a folded flexible bellows assembly around the door opening, to keep clothing contained inside the basket during the tumbling wash cycle. If this bellows assembly were not used, small articles of clothing such as socks could slip out of the wash basket near the door, and fall down the narrow slot between the outer tub and basket, plugging the drain and possibly jamming rotation of the inner basket. Retrieving lost items from between the outer tub and inner basket can require complete disassembly of the front of the washer and pulling out the entire inner wash basket. Commercial and industrial front-loaders used by businesses (described below) usually do not use the bellows, and instead require all small objects to be placed in a mesh bag to prevent loss near the basket opening.

This bellows assembly around the door is the source of problems for the consumer front-loader. The bellows has a large number of flexible folds to permit the tub to move separately from the door during the high speed extraction cycle. These folds can collect lint, dirt, and moisture, resulting in mold and mildew growth and a foul odor. Some front-loading washer operating instructions say the bellows should be wiped down monthly with a strong bleach solution, while others offer a special freshening cycle where the machine is run empty with a strong dosing of bleach.

A top-loading washer suffers from none of these continued maintenance problems and needs no regular freshening. During the spin cycle, a top-loading tub is free to move about inside the cabinet of the machine, using only a lip around the top of the inner basket and outer tub to keep the spinning water and clothing from spraying out over the edge.

There are many variations of these two general themes. Top loading machines in Asia use impellers instead of agitators. Impellers are similar to agitators except that they do not have the center post extending up in the middle of the wash tub basket. There is also a top loading variant of the horizontal axis design that is loaded from the top, through a small door in the circumference of the drum. These machines usually have a shorter cylinder and are therefore smaller, but offer the efficiency of a front-loader while eliminating the problems of the flexible bellows. This kind of washing machine is sold and popular in Europe, especially in small households, because it offers the same drum system as front loaders, just with a smaller footprint.

Front-loaded machines are ideal for fitted/finished kitchens, since they can be installed under a countertop/worktop. A front loading washing machine, in a fully-fitted kitchen, is often disguised as an ordinary base cabinet/unit. They are also ideal for small homes and apartments with limited space, because the dryer can be installed directly above the washer.

Many front loading machines have electrical heating elements to heat the wash bath to near boiling. Chemical action is supplied by the detergent and other laundry chemicals. Front loaders use special detergents that are designed to release different chemical ingredients at different temperatures. This is so that different type of stains and soils will be cleaned from the clothes as the wash water is heated up by the electrical heater. Front loaders also need to use low sudsing detergents because the tumbling action of the drum folds air into the clothes load that can cause over-sudsing. Due to the concentration of water and detergent, though, the sudsing issue of front-loaders can also be controlled by simply using less detergent without lessening cleaning action.

Tests comparing front loading and top loading machines have shown that, in general, front-loaders wash clothes more thoroughly, cause less wear, and use less water and energy than top-loaders. As a result of using less water, they require less detergent to be used, or conversely, they can use the same amount of detergent with less water, which increases detergent concentration and increases the amount of chemical action. They also allow a dryer to be more easily mounted directly above the washer.

Top-loaders have had the advantage that they complete a washing cycle much faster and allow clothes to be removed at intermediate stages of the cycle (for instance, if some clothes within a wash are not to be spun). Many current front-loaders, though, can be stopped and added-to or removed-from because the water level in the horizontal tub is still below the door level. They also tend to be easier to load and unload, since reaching into the tub does not require stooping. Again, this issue can be mitigated due to the offering of risers (usually with storage drawers underneath) to raise the door opening closer to the user's level. The top loader's spin cycle between washing and rinsing allows an extremely simple fabric softener dispenser, which operates passively through centrifugal force and gravity. The same objective must be accomplished by a solenoid-operated valve on a front loader. Another advantage to the top loading design is the reliance on gravity to contain the water, rather than potentially trouble-prone or short-lived front door seals.

Traditionally, top loading machines have tended to be more complex mechanically than front loading washers, because the former generally require a gearbox, clutch, crank, etc to perform the wash cycle. However, the recent introduction of direct drive motors has simplified some of the top loading washers on the market. Also, because of the introduction of electronics, modern machines are less complex than the early automatic washers. Consequently, the price of automatic machines, in real terms, has fallen.


Some features available in modern consumer washing machines:

  • Aquastop
  • Child lock
  • Delayed execution
  • Time remaining indication
  • Steam

Many of the features of the modern consumer washing machines now taken for granted, were available only in more expensive models 5-10 years ago.


Washing machines perform several rinses after the main wash to remove most of the detergent. Modern washing machines use less water due to environmental concerns, however this has lead to the problem of poor rinsing on many washing machines on the market , which can be a problem to people who are sensitive to detergents. Some washing machines have an extra rinse option to help. Using non-bio detergent may help allergy sufferers.

Top loading versus front loading

Some top-loader advocates have argued that a top-loader leans more towards efficiency with dramatically faster wash times, although comparisons of energy use show this to be wrong -- front loaders generally use less energy, water and detergent and are more efficient as well as sometimes more effective at cleaning. New top loaders (manufactured in the US after 2007) compare especially poorly since new regulations have reduced the amount of energy they consume, which has resulted in shortened cycles and less effective cleaning. Front loaders do tend to have longer cycle times although they still consume less energy. Front-loaders lean toward less consumption with dramatically lower amounts of water and less detergent required.


Feature Top Loading Washer Front Loading Washer
European Market Share 10%** 90%
US Market Share 65% 35%

In the United States, top-loading machines are the most commonly used. However, in Europe the front-loading style is preferred. A factor in the preference for front-loaders in Europe is the preference for integrated appliances that sit under countertops in kitchens and utility rooms or that can be fully integrated and concealed in kitchen cabinetry. Also, because the first mass marketed automatic washing machines sold from the 1950s onwards in Europe were almost exclusively front loaders European consumers tended to associate top loaders with labour intensive obsolete technology. European households also tend to pay more attention to water and energy conservation as heavy environmental taxes are levied on both water and energy use. Front loading machines also offer much higher spin drying speeds of up to 2000 RPM. This makes it possible to dry clothes very quickly by hanging them on washing lines or airing racks or can substantially reduce the length of time required in a tumble dryer. The EU also has a comprehensive energy efficiency, wash performance and spin dry performance labelling system which rates major appliance performance from A to G. This has driven consumers away from inefficient machines as they will generally try to buy A rated appliances. For example a "Triple A" (AAA) rated machine = Lowest Energy Consumption, Best Wash and Best Water Extraction (Spin) performance.

(**)It should also be noted that while 10% of European washing machines may be top loading they are not of the same design as North American machines. Rather than washing the clothes with an agitator, they also use a horizontally mounted drum. The clothes are loaded through a hatch in the drum wall. Their design is mechanically identical to that of a front loader. These machines are particularly popular for small apartments as they take up less floor space than a conventional front loader and for historical marketing reasons are more popular in certain EU countries. For example they are quite commonly found in French houses while they're practically unheard of in the UK and Republic of Ireland.


Feature Top Loading Washer Front Loading Washer
Water -- ++
Detergent - +
Energy Varies by manufacture Varies by manufacture

Though front-loaders feature a wash style that requires less water than a top-loader and todays front-loader's achieve much better washing results and treat the garments more gently. Meanwhile all front-loaders offer quick programs which are in the same time range as top-loader cycles.

Washing process

Feature Top Loading Washer Front Loading Washer
Cycle Time (fastest) √*
Cycle Options
Cleaning Effectiveness

  • the washing time is more flexible and some front-loader manufacturers offer programs which last just 15 min.

European standards

Capacity and cost are the main considerations when purchasing a washing machine. If intended for use by a single person, a capacity of under 5 kg should be sufficient (thus saving energy and running costs).

Washing machines display an EU Energy Label with grades for washing performance, energy efficiency and spin efficiency. Grades run from A to G (best to worst), and provide a simple method for judging running costs and performance. An A++ machine will denote top performance in the three categories.

Commercial washing machines

A commercial washing machine is intended for more frequent and long-term usage than a consumer washing machine. Because function is more important than style, most commercial washers have a sharp-edged square appearance, often with stainless steel exteriors to minimize rust and corrosion in a constantly moist environment. They are built with large easy-to-open service covers, and the washer mechanisms are internally laid out in a manner that does not require access to the underside of the unit for service. Often commercial washers are installed in long rows with a wide access passageway behind all the machines to allow maintenance without moving the heavy machine.

Many commercial washers are built for use by the general public, and are installed in publicly accessible laundromats or laundrettes, operated by money accepting devices or card readers. The features of a commercial laundromat washer are more limited than a consumer washer, offering just two or three basic wash types plus an option to choose wash cycle temperatures.

Commercial washers for business (still often referred to as a washer/extractor) can include extra features that are never seen in the consumer market. Many commercial washers offer an option for automatic chemical injection of five or more different chemical types, so that the operator does not have to deal with constantly measuring out soap products and fabric softeners for each load. Instead a precise metering system draws the detergents and wash additives directly from large liquid-chemical storage barrels and injects them as needed into the various wash and rinse cycles.

Some computer-controlled commercial washers offer the operator complete control over the various wash and rinse cycles, allowing the operator to program custom washing cycles.

One special type of continuous-processing washer is known as the tunnel washer which does not have separate, distinct wash or rinse cycles, but combines them all in sequence inside a single long large-diameter rotating tube.

Industrial washing machines

An industrial clothes washer extends from the commercial washer to include extremely large capacities, severe-abuse textiles cleaning and processing, and automated robotic assembly-line systems.

These can be used to batch process up to 300 pounds (140 kg) of textiles at once, and can be used for extremely machine-abusive washing tasks such as stone washing or fabric bleaching and dyeing.

An industrial washer can be mounted on heavy shock absorbers and attached to a concrete floor so that it can extract water from even the most severely out-of-balance and heavy wash loads.

It may even be mounted on hydraulic cylinders, permitting the entire washer to be lifted and tilted so that fabrics can be automatically dumped from the wash drum onto a conveyor belt once the cycle is complete.

See also


  • William Lester, Grandson of Louis Goldenberg. Inventor for Ford Company.''

External links

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