British Expat Newsletter:
11 October 2006

Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.

In this issue

  • This week: Domestic appliances
  • Virtual Snacks
  • Bizarre Searches
  • Quotation and joke

This week

As you read this on your computer, chances are that you’re surrounded by other technical innovations in your home: fridge, freezer, washing machine, dishwasher, etc. They’re just everyday conveniences which most of us take for granted. But even these humble objects have interesting histories if you care to delve a little into the past.

Some of them have been around for longer than you might expect. In many cases, the technology was there but the price of these goods was prohibitive. It was also the case that most houses didn’t have the necessary infrastructure to make use of the emerging technologies. Many rural homes in the UK didn’t have running water until well into the twentieth century.

The microwave has always struck me as a very 1970s innovation. Yet it actually saw the light of day in 1947! The key technological advance which made it possible was the cavity magnetron, which was developed in order to enable aircraft to carry radar equipment on board during the Second World War. The earliest radar equipment, used by the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, used long wavelengths and thus needed large masts to generate the radio waves. The cavity magnetron reduced the wavelengths to a matter of centimetres. (In fact, “magnetron” is the word the Dutch use for a microwave oven.)

Washing machines were perhaps the most significant innovation for the household. Before their arrival, washdays literally did take a day or even more, as clothes had to be scrubbed by hand. At best, the housewife (and it invariably was women’s work in those days) had a washtub and a wash dolly (a contraption a bit like a wooden stool with a long broomstick through it) to agitate the clothes – but it was still hard physical labour. And this went on right up into the early twentieth century, even though the first patent for a washing and wringing machine was granted in 1691. It wasn’t until 1906 that the first electric washing machine went into mass production; and it took another 31 years before Bendix came up with their automatic machine. (And even that had to be bolted to the floor because it vibrated so much.)

One thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to choosing between top-loading and front-loading washing machines, there seems to be quite a bit of variation around the world. Here in Thailand, the top-loader is king; sure, you can get front-loaders (and we have) but you have to hunt around a bit for them. According to Wikipedia, the same is true of the US and Australia. In Europe, on the other hand, top-loaders are a rarity, except perhaps in launderettes. I don’t know why – maybe people associate top-loaders with the old-fashioned twin-tubs (remember them?).

The idea of having a box in your house to keep food cold in is an old one, of course. In ye olden days, it was called a cellar – if you were wealthy enough to have one. Then in the early nineteenth century in the US people had the idea of cutting up the ice off frozen lakes, storing it in warehouses and selling it bit by bit to households, who would keep their block of ice in a special cupboard designed to keep the cold air inside – an icebox. Deliveries of ice were as much a commonplace in American cities as deliveries of milk. (Hence, I suppose, the Eugene O’Neill play “The Iceman Cometh”. “The Milkman Cometh” doesn’t have quite the same ring somehow, does it?) Inevitably, commercial refrigeration facilities were available quite some time before the domestic version, and for several decades the commercial facilities would provide the ice for iceboxes.

Perhaps inevitably it was a Frenchman, Marcel Audiffren, who had the idea of producing a refrigerator for the domestic market, thus enabling people to keep fresh food in short-term storage at home. But the earliest fridges using his design cost a whopping $1,000 back in 1911 – about twice the cost of the average car. And many of these units needed the compressor motor and heat diffuser to be housed in a different room from the cold compartment. It wasn’t until 1927 that a mass-produced fridge became available. The General Electric “Monitor-Top” is a funny-looking thing by modern standards, with its compressor on top concealed by a decorative porcelain ring; but it sold over a million, and some are still working today.

You maybe wouldn’t have expected the dishwasher to be the oldest among the four inventions I asked about at the beginning of this piece. Yet they’ve been around in more or less their present form since 1886! The inventor, Josephine Cochrane, didn’t invent it for herself as such, but for her servants – who were chipping her chinaware. The idea was that extra-hot water and more powerful, more caustic detergents would remove food more effectively than hand-washing, and avoid the almost inevitable bumps and bashes in washing-up basins.

Needless to say, all of these innovations have been refined since their invention. The CFCs which first brought fridges into the home have now been banned internationally; washing machines use far less water now than they used to; some microwaves can now read the barcodes on food packaging and cook the contents automatically; and researchers at the University of New South Wales have been working on a dishwasher that uses “supercritical” carbon dioxide instead of water and detergent, saving energy and reducing pollution of the water cycle with harsh chemicals. And of course all of them are getting hooked up to the internet these days.

What next, I wonder?

Do you have anything to say about this topic? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell us?

Virtual Snacks

Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:

General Electric have an interesting timeline of domestic appliances (mostly their own, of course, but still worth a look):
General Electric: History of domestic appliances

A few years ago Channel 4 showed a reality TV series about a family that spent two months living a 1900 lifestyle in a terraced house in south-east London. Sadly, they’ve pulled their own mini-site, but PBS television in the States still have theirs:
PBS: The 1900 House

Washing machines are far more reliable now than they were even twenty years ago, but they’re still more prone to breakdowns than other appliances. Here’s a helpful site produced by a washing machine engineer:

Bizarre Searches

Some strange search terms which have led people to visit British Expat recently:

  • mosquitoes pollenate
  • good of mankind reverse effect fear
  • fish fingers are made
  • freddie mercury birthday cards online
  • refrigerator song
  • rincwind poster
  • cluttons mallorca
  • more about creepy crawlies/insects
  • grown man crying
  • desmond morris leg crossing

Till next time…
Happy surfing!

British Expat Magazine


“You sometimes see a woman who would have made a Joan of Arc in another century and climate, threshing herself to pieces over all the mean worry of housekeeping.”

– Rudyard Kipling, poet, novelist and journalist (1865-1936)


Mary was married to a male chauvinist. They both worked full-time, but he never did anything around the house and certainly not any housework. That, he declared, was women’s work!

But one evening Mary arrived home from work to find the children bathed, a load in the washing machine and another in the dryer, dinner on the stove and a beautifully set table, complete with flowers. She was astonished, and she immediately wanted to know what was going on.

It turned out that Charlie, her husband, had read a magazine article which suggested that working wives would be more romantically inclined if they weren’t so tired from having to do all the housework, in addition to holding down a full-time job.

The next day, she couldn’t wait to tell her girlfriends at the office. “How did it work out?” they asked.

“Well, it was a great dinner,” Mary said. “Charlie even cleaned up, helped the kids with their homework, folded the laundry and put everything away. I really enjoyed my evening.”

“But what about afterwards?” her friends wanted to know.

“It didn’t work out,” Mary said. “He was too tired.”

This entry was posted in 2006 by Kay McMahon. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kay McMahon

Kay has been an expat for nearly 30 years. She set up the British Expat website back in early 2000, whilst living in London and missing the expat life. These days she spends much of her time lugging computers and cameras around the world. (Dave gets to deal with all the really heavy stuff.)

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