What happened this week in the History of Industry? It is to answer this question that we invite you to rediscover, every week, a historical event which occurred around this time… in another age. This week, we look back at an innovation which was to revolutionize daily life for men and women all over the world, and try to iron out any creases in the story of this invention.
THE IRON AGE
While sources appear to agree that the iron originated in China, they differ on the dates. Some date its origins to the first century BC, when metal pans filled with charcoal were apparently used to smooth fabrics, others to 500 years later, in the fourth century AD, with roughly the same device. Let’s leave it to historians to iron out their differences amongst themselves and simply underline that in the West the use of heat came much later.
For a long time, indeed, people in the West used a simple smoother made of wood, glass or marble because the use of starch at that time to stiffen the lace ruffs, collars and cuffs which decorated their clothes precluded the use of heat. Things continued in this way without a wrinkle until the 17th century, when the first mention was made of a “smoothing iron”, which at that time consisted of an iron handle and a triangular cast iron soleplate heated in the embers, used to flatten all creases in clothes.
This was followed by the emergence of “radiant” heating: the inside of the iron was hollowed to be filled first with embers and then directly with heated metal. These irons, equipped with a wooden handle, were made by casting, making their production quicker, easier and more economical compared to manufacturing by 18th century tool makers, who made them by forging and fitting their various metal parts. Other means of heating then appeared: hot water, gas, alcohol, etc.
THE ELECTRICAL REVOLUTION
The final big revolution took place, however, on the 6th of June 1882. A certain Henry W. Seely in New York, an electronics expert by trade, filed a patent for the first electric iron. The current passed through the electrodes of a carbon arc which heated an independent electric plate. Simpler ironing, regular temperature of the soleplate… the advantages were undeniable. The only problem was that this tremendous invention was relatively unusable to the time because hardly any homes were connected to an electricity grid… The same year, a similar device was also presented in France, but deemed too dangerous.
With the development of the grid, however, this device progressively became more widespread until a new turning point was reached twenty years later, in 1902, with the emergence, directly in the iron, of a heating element enabling the plate to be dispensed with. The only drawback was that the user had to alternately pull out the plugs of the electrical cord and plug them back in again to maintain the required temperature. Which required iron discipline.
The revolution was nevertheless underway… and it was often rooted in France, where inventors worked flat out on innovations. In 1917, the Arts & Métiers engineer Léo Trouilhet founded the Calor company and simultaneously launched the first European electric iron – a few years before the emergence of the thermostat – followed in 1963 by the Vapo Matic, the first ever steam iron. In 1959 Dominique Berduçone patented the first wireless device, and in 1983 André Sallé invented the Chromex, the first wireless steam iron.
OTHER EVENTS WHICH HAPPENED THIS WEEK:
-,1 June (1942): commissioning of the Grand Coulee hydroelectric dam in the United States
- 1 June (2003): filling of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the biggest hydroelectric plant in the world at 600 km long
- 1 June (2016): opening in Switzerland of the Saint-Gothard railway tunnel, the longest in the world at 57.1 km,
- 3 June (1784): in Lyon, Elisabeth Tible becomes the first female aeronaut
- 4 June (1896): the Ford Quadricycle, the first prototype automobile developed by Henry Ford, is driven in Detroit
- 5 June (1969): the Russian Tupolev Tu-144, the only civilian supersonic aircraft other than Concorde to have reached the production stage, goes through the sound barrier
- 5 June (1972): the first UN conference on the environment opens in Stockholm