When the Digital Revolution Hit Washers

Here’s how your laundry went high-tech

Humans have been washing clothes as long as they’ve worn them, a fact that’s made laundry the oldest, most tedious chore in history. No surprise, then, that forward-thinking entrepreneurs gave us various versions of the washing machine as far back as 1851. Most historians cite the 1908 Thor machine as the first “modern” washer—meaning, the user didn’t have to crank it. You dumped your dirty clothes into the drum, added the water and soap, and an electric motor tumbled it all around.

Sound familiar? It should. The physics of doing laundry haven’t really changed, which is why the story of contemporary washing machines (and the marketing of them) is really a story of technology: how that familiar contraption doing a familiar chore might just get it done better, quicker and easier.

This dynamic explains both the obvious differences (yet the strange sense of similarity) present in the 1978 and 2013 ads for washers shown here. “It caught me by surprise that these are essentially the same ad,” said Stuart Leslie, president of New York-based design and innovation firm, 4sight inc. “The theme for both is technology. The difference is how the technology is perceived.”

In 1978—the year of Atari and the year after Star Wars—computerized technology was slowly making its way into the American home. It was a heady time, the fulfillment of the futuristic promises born in the 1964 World’s Fair and televised during the Apollo moon missions. So when Whirlpool unveiled its Super Capacity Model LA9000XM, it’s no accident that the machine’s top panel looked like something out of Mission Control in Houston. “This was a console to launch a rocket,” Leslie said.

While the new technology tickled consumers with the promise of convenience, the notion of a computer supervising the washing you used to do on your own triggered a measure of anxiety, too—and all those paddle switches and membrane buttons were as much about that as regulating the wash. “This technological era offered the promise of doing the miraculous, but we still wanted control,” Leslie said. The prominent panel afforded literal control, but “it also said that you were running the show—just like those guys putting the rocket on the moon.”

In the intervening 35 years, we may have tired of sending men into orbit, but technology has furnished us with a space-age laundry experience. The Whirlpool Duet Adaptive Clean machines here can automatically sense the clothes you dump in, adjust all the settings and even portion out the detergent. And, needless to say, computers are not the anxiety-provoking things they once were. We don’t need to run the show anymore. It’s why the Battlestar Galactica control console of yore has been replaced by a single dial. “Today,” Leslie said, “we trust the machine. It knows what to do.”

Funny thing is, it’s still just doing the damned laundry.

Recommended articles