Like most of the machines that chug away quietly, making our modern lives possible, the washing machine cannot be attributed to a single inventor, no matter how loudly each of those inventors claimed otherwise at the patent office.
The idea of turning clothes, soap and water around in a metal drum to clean them actually precedes the scrubbing board. The first English patent for the drum system dates to 1782, and the washer-board was invented in 1792. However, not much was done with the idea until 1851 when an American named James King patented a hand-powered machine that turned the drum around for you. The first machine to turn the drum vertically was patented by Hamilton Smith in England in 1858. The first washing machine designed to be installed in the home was made by an American named William Blackstone in 1874.
Then, oddly enough, the idea of the drum washer was abandoned for more than 30 years. Various electrically powered ‘squeeze scrubbers’ were tried during that period.
Alva J Fisher invented the ‘Thor’ washing machine in 1908, which was the first drum-based washer that ran on electricity, and is the first machine we might recognise as an automatic washer today, but the agitators and corrugated drum refinements weren’t invented until the 1920s and 30s.
Just like we saw in the dishwasher, it wasn’t until the late 1930s and early 1940s, when fully-plumbed kitchens and washrooms became common, that washing machines began to be installed permanently in homes.
The first truly automated washing machine was introduced by the Bendix company in 1937. It featured several internal timers and had a modern style wash sequence, and a centrifugal spin-dry feature. Note that this feature meant that it had to be firmly screwed in to the floor, because there was no automatic drum balancing device. It shook in a way which, today, would mean an immediate call for a service engineer
Computer controlled washers were first sold in the 1970s, and the evolution of the home washer was more-or-less complete.