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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Technology paving the way for convenient housework

Technology and human creativity have engineered appliances to save time and hassle

Housework is what a woman does that nobody notices unless she hasn’t done it, said American humorist Evan Esar.  A satirical comment that is undeniably true. Household chores have been conveniently shoved on women, since ancient times, and many women have slogged all their lives to ensure households run smoothly.

As harried mothers know, chores can be endless. Stand-up comedian Phyllis Diller said, “Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing up is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.”

Many of us take for granted a lot of the electronic appliances commonly used by households that have taken over with speed and efficiency, work that was earlier handled by human hands. Soiled clothes need not be hand-scrubbed and hung out on lines to dry. The washing machine and dryer take care of that. Wrinkles on clothes are easily ironed off by the many types and brands of irons available on the market. The variety offered can also be too much of a good thing, for the customer is left wondering what to buy. That is where the IronsExpert comes in, offering reviews of each product so consumers can decide what fits best in quality and price. Eva Bombeck, American humorist who became popular writing about suburban life, said, “My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.” However, even as people plug the lightweight modern irons into wall sockets, most are unaware of the history behind the iron. In 1852, the US issued a patent for a novel iron to ensure “permanent heating of smoothing irons” by burning charcoal. In 1858, gas irons made ironing a little less of a hot-and-bother affair by eliminating the constant need to run to a hot stove to heat the iron. In 1881, Henry W. Seely trailblazed using electricity to power irons, turning a brilliant idea into his famous electric flat-iron. Then, in 1905, Earl H. Richardson, a resident of Ontario, California, designed the lightweight Hotpoint iron which gave more heating capability to the pointed front end of the iron’s soleplate, allowing better access to buttonholes and pleated clothes. It became a natural instant hit among laundry-doers. During 1912 and 1931, consumers bought over 3 million electric irons.  

Two cutting-edge engineering developments – small, efficient motors and resistance heating – paved the way for many modern labor-saving household devices. However, most conveniences today owe their existence to the discovery of electricity. The honor of this discovery belongs to British scientist Michael Faraday in 1831.

Subsequently, Thomas Edison’s 1879 invention of a durable electric bulb led to establishing several small electricity stations in the US during the 1880s.Yet, for 50 more years, many Americans used gas light and candles to disperse the darkness of night. By 1930, Americans cities and large towns had electricity, but it had still not spread to the rural areas, and only 10% of farms had electric power. But that did not deter eager inventors.

Eating being a major event of life, many inventors pursued ideas that would make the whole process of cooking and storing food, and clean-up after meals, easier and faster for those responsible for the kitchen.  The first gas stoves became a commercial success in England in the 1880s. One of the first electric stoves patented by Canadian inventor Thomas Ahearn, came out in 1892. Electric stoves did not become popular immediately because the technology was new and electricity was not widespread. Electric stoves were introduced in the US in the early 1970s. Food preservation through refrigeration began with American inventor Jacob Perkins, introducing the vapo-compression cycle using liquid ammonia, for which he received a patent in 1835. He is sometimes referred to as the “father of the refrigerator.” However, it was in 1913 that refrigerators were produced for home use.

During the post-war period of the 1950s, free of war demands, manufacturers were able to focus on diverse appliances for household convenience. As a Vice President of the American Cleaning Institute, Brain Sansoni said, “There’s something about a clean house, a clean room. It does wonders for the psyche.” Keeping a house clean during earlier times, was a back-breaking job involving sweeping and mopping. Vacuuming the floors of a house for spotlessness became a possibility once James Spangler, an asthmatic janitor in a department store in Ohio, invented the first practical vacuum cleaner for home use. It was also the first to use cleaning accessories and a filter bag made of cloth. Spangler was awarded a patent in 1908, for an improved version of his initial model. William H. Hoover, who was impressed by Spangler’s creation, he bought up the patent for the upright vacuum cleaner. In the end, Spangler’s invention became known as the Hoover vacuum cleaner. Hoover established factories in Canada and in England too. Even today, to some British people, vacuuming is synonymous with “hoovering.”

As necessity is the mother of invention, dishwashers came into being with necessity. Josephine Garis Cochran, a wealthy socialite who entertained regularly, was frustrated by fine china breakages and the slow pace of her domestic help in washing up. When she was unable to find a machine to do what she needed, she built one herself. She exhibited her creation at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, but her product generated interest only among hoteliers and restaurateurs. The company Cochran founded is today known as KitchenAid. The dishwasher was probably ahead of its time, for it was accepted as a standard kitchen appliance only in the 1950s.

While people may appreciate and marvel at the time and energy saving appliances they have around the house, few give a thought to, or are even aware of the people who first gave life to the product through invention. As American writer and philosopher, Elbert Hubbard, once said, “One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”

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