Lady Inventors: The Washing Machine Innovator

Cristen Conger

Ah, classic sexist washing machine advertising.
Ah, classic sexist washing machine advertising.
Courtesy: pds209/Flickr Creative Commons

Isn't it nice to not have to wash our clothes by hand (except in the cases of "delicates" whose wimpy fabric can't withstand the aquatic agitation, or modern-day homesteaders who prefer to do laundry with vintagey washboards and handmade detergent)? This modern convenience that many of us may take for granted comes courtesy of Lady Inventor Ellen Eglui who came up with the "first ever clothes wringer for washing machines" that not only propelled washing machine technology but also improved hygiene and ultimately helped free housewives from domestic duties that consumed staggering hours in the days before running water and electronic appliances.

Not much is known about Eglui's life, aside from the racism of her day that thwarted her from reaping much profit from her revolutionary invention. An African-American, Eglui sold her patent rights in 1888 because: "You know I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention white ladies would not buy the wringer, I was afraid to be known because of my color, in having it introduced into the market, that is the only reason."

Perhaps that's one reason her name usually isn't found in histories of the washing machine. Before Eglui devised the clothes ringer, primitive washing machines of the early- and mid-1800s consisted of a tub containing a hand-cranked wooden paddle that swished laundry around. Typical washing machine timelines hop-skip over Eglui's crucial upgrade and instead spotlight Alva J. Fisher who -- also crucially -- ushered the washer into the electric era in 1906.

Eglui made just $18 from her innovation, which translates to around $452 in today's money.