The benefit of a washing machine

You think the ipad was the greatest invention ever made? No, its the washing machine. And where there are still 5 Billion waiting to have one, the benefits have yet to be fully maximised.

From the Sydney Morning Herald

How the washing machine changed the world

Matt Wade
April 8, 2012
The humble washing machine ... developing countries are yet to see the full impact. 

The humble washing machine … developing countries are yet to see the full impact.

In our kitchens, lounge rooms and laundries there’s an array of gadgets that have helped transform the economy. But which has had the biggest impact?

Many would probably choose the internet, the technology that defines our age. After all, it has rapidly altered the way we work, shop and socialise, while spawning industries unimagined even a few years ago.

But some economists think a more potent change agent is sitting, under-appreciated, in the laundry. The Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang argues the washing machine beats the internet hands down when it comes to economic impact. In his book, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, Chang says the washing machine, and related gadgets such as the electric iron, have ”totally transformed the way women, and consequently men, live”.

He cites US data from the 1940s showing how the newly invented machine reduced the time needed to clean a standard load of laundry from four hours to 41 minutes. That’s a factor of six. The electric iron reduced the time taken to iron that laundry load from 4.5 hours to 1.75 hours – a factor of more than 2.5.

These devices allowed women to move out of their homes and get involved in more productive activities than washing clothes, especially paid work. The arrival of the washing machine and electric iron as mass consumer products in the 1950s contributed to a surge in female workforce participation. This virtually doubled the workforce in advanced countries, revolutionising their economies in the process.

Of course the mass use of washing machines and irons was only possible because of innovations such as piped water and electricity. Others, such as the contraceptive pill, also underpinned the dramatic increase in female labour market participation.

But without the time savings made possible by washing machines, the magnitude of economic change would not have been nearly so dramatic.

While Chang acknowledges revolutionary aspects of the internet, he claims its economic influence is often exaggerated. Even the advent of the telegraph in 1866 had a bigger impact on global communications than the internet, he says. A letter sent across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1860s took two weeks by boat but the telegraph slashed the transmission of a 300-word transatlantic message to seven or eight minutes – a factor of more than 2500 times.

Chang estimates an email message is only about 100 times faster than its predecessor, the fax.

It’s likely we exaggerate the revolutionary nature of cyberspace simply because it’s new. The same was probably true when cars, planes and electric light bulbs made their appearance. People tend to attribute disproportionate importance to new gadgets and downplay the importance of things we’ve grown used to, such as washing machines.

”We vastly overestimate the impacts of the internet only because it is affecting us now,” Chang writes.

There’s a fascinating twist in the economics of the washing machine: billions are yet to have their clothes washed in one. While they are commonplace in Australian laundries, most of the world’s population still can’t afford to buy one.

A Swedish public health statistician, Hans Rosling, analysed industry data and concluded an average disposable income of $US40 a day is needed to afford a washing machine. For hundreds of millions in slums and villages in developing countries one would be useless, even if they could afford it, since they don’t have the electricity and piped water needed to run one. In India, for example, an estimated 400 million to 500 million people don’t yet have electricity in their homes.

Rosling estimates only about 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people have a washing machine. But that proportion is set to increase rapidly. Strong growth in developing countries such as China, India and Brazil has lifted millions out of poverty and a washing machine is near the top of every family’s shopping list. For them, the economic changes made possible by the washing machine are still to come.

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