Inside the Collection

The Compressed Air washing machine

Photograph of compressed air manual washing machine made by Wolter, Echberg and Company
Compressed Air manual washing machine made by Wolter, Echberg and Company, 6 Russell Street, Melbourne, 1879,, K1235. Purchased 1984.Collection:MAAS

This space age looking piece of domestic technology, reminiscent of Mr Squiggle’s rocket, is a manually operated washing machine made in Melbourne by Echberg, Wolter and Company in about 1879 and marketed as the ‘compressed air’ machine. It’s made of galvanised iron with a distinctive rocket or torpedo-shape. A central drum, with two cone-shaped ends, contained the water and suds in which the clothes were washed. The idea was that dirty clothes, soaked in hot water, soap and washing soda (sodium carbonate), were placed in the “torpedo-shaped” tub, which pivoted on a stand. The lid was sealed and by rocking the tub for about five minutes the washing was said to have been completed.

The marketing pitch that the machine operated on compressed air, with the pressure apparently built up in the sealed and confined space of the tub, would probably not have made any difference to the wash. With the widespread use of steam power, it was a creative but unsubstantiated marketing ploy.

This Australian-designed and made washing machine is certainly an unusual one for the time. The usual types available were mostly imported from England and the USA comprising a wooden box or tub with internal corrugations and the washing agitated by turning or beating with internal paddles.

Throughout the nineteenth and into the first half of the twentieth century washing clothes was a laborious and much detested weekly chore which took a full day to complete, usually on a Monday. This machine was certainly an improvement on the hard work of scrubbing clothes against a washboard in a tub but it still required a considerable amount of labour to fill and empty the machine twice by hand to wash and then rinse, remove the heavy wet washing, wring it out and hang on the line.

In an effort to produce an effective washing machine that imitated hand washing, by the 1870s some 2,000 patents had been issued in the USA alone. As well as the machines themselves, there were also many wringers and mangles to squeeze out the washing water, not to mention boilers and coppers. However, the invention of the first electric washing machine, patented in 1910, was the true turning point in washing machine design, leading to washing machines eventually becoming real labour-saving devices. However, most women in Australia had to wait until the 1950s for their first electric washing machine, when there was greater prosperity and the ready availability of electricity, to release them from laundry drudgery.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Science and Industry, January 2015

The Sydney International Exhibition in “Australian Town and Country Journal”, 5 October 1879 p.7.

Troy, Patrick Nicol, “A History of European Housing in Australia”, CambridgeUniversity Press, 2000, pp. 100-102.

3 responses to “The Compressed Air washing machine

  • My great grandmother had one of the Wolter and Echberg Washing Machines of which we have the information. I am wondering if you know what the capacity of the machine was? I can’t find any information on the web sites re this.
    In anticipation
    Regards Ann Walker

    • Hi Ann
      I’m afraid I haven’t been able to find out the capacity of the washing machine. I checked a number of contemporary newspaper articles and unfortunately it wasn’t mentioned. However they did say that the machine washed 30 items of clothing if that helps.

  • Thank you for the information on this washing machine. I saw it at our local museum and was fascinated by it and the fact it was patent in Melbourne.

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