Today doing the laundry is easy. All you need to do is sort the pile of laundry into light-coloured items and dark ones. Open the door of the machine and load a pile. Add the laundry detergent and the softener and leave the machine to get on with the job. When done take out the well-spun garments ready for drying. A painless exercise but now consider this scenario:
it is the mid-1970s, a young couple with a toddler and a baby move to Africa for the husband’s work. Everything is different, Africa is a place where water is a precious commodity, electricity is also a scarce resource, derived from a generator that only works for a couple of hours in the evening. It is a dry, dusty land. The soil is a deep red colour which stains clothing easily. That, together with the heat, meant changing at least once a day. A social engagement requires another shower and a change of clothing. The young woman, let’s call her Betty, looked at the towering mountain of laundry and wondered how to get it under control.
Fortunately, help was at hand. As a mining engineer, her husband was a dab hand in his workshop and said he was sure he could solve the washing problem. One solution was to do like everyone else in the village, use a maid to carry baskets of laundry on her head to the river to be slapped and swished in the swirling brown water. Betty was not too happy about the ability to maintain the brilliant white colours for nappies and shirts using this technique. No, she would rather bend over the bath and wash each item by hand. Nothing but the best would do for her precious son’s nappies. She worried what her family back home would say if they heard the nappies were anything other than sparkling white.
Rodney had a bright idea and disappeared into his workshop every evening after work. There was a lot of banging and sparking of the welding machine. At the end of a week, he led Betty out to his domain and proudly showed her his invention.
She looked at the contraption a moment then managed a weak smile, “That looks interesting dear. What is it?”
He looked crestfallen, “It’s a washing machine, to make your life easier.”
She swallowed to quell the panic that she could feel rising. She took a deep breath, “Oh, how does it work?”
Now, he was on safer ground. Smiling, he explained, “it’s a 44-gallon drum, don’t worry, it’s not one which has had diesel in it. Look inside and you will see the devilish idea of mine.”
She did, and it looked devilish. There was an inverted metal cone with a metal strap rising from its pinnacle. Some wizardry attached this to a crossbar which ended in a wooden handle. She still had not a clue how it could work as a washing machine. She had to admit looking at this contraption the idea of paying someone to wash the clothes in the river was suddenly an attractive option.
He did not notice her blanching and grabbed the handle, “See, if you lift the handle it pushes the cone down and as you release the pressure it rises. Clever isn’t it?”
She had no wish to upset him, but still, she did not understand how it would help with the laundry. He was so excited he continued, “You put the clothes into the drum under the cone and add as much water as you need. Then at the washing soap. If you work the handle up and down, the cone squashes and releases the laundry. I’ve put a little tap at the bottom so when you think the clothes are clean you let the soapy water out then refill to rinse. Bash it then let the water out again. To wring stuff out use the good fashioned mangle. I thought you might like to work outside in the tree's shade. I’ve put feet on the washing machine and dug the base of the mangle into the soil. You can have birdsong to keep you company while you wash, and it channels all the water out into the garden. We could even grow our own veggies from the recycled water.”
He was so excited at the possibilities, not once did he notice her casting anxious looks at the monstrosity. “Look, I’ve even made a cover for it to keep the inside clean.”
She knew she had no alternative but to give it a go. Inside the house, she sorted out the whites from the coloureds and carried a load in an old tin bath to the monstrosity she now called Larry the laundry assistant. Carefully she placed the tub on the dry dusty ground, then loaded the clothes into Larry’s gaping maw. She turned on the water at the outside tap and allowed the garden hose to direct the water up to the level Rodney thought would get the load to jiggle around.
Then she worked the handle. It was heavy going. But, she had to admit, not as backbreaking as bending over the bath. The mangle took care of the heavy wringing and soon the nappies were hanging on the line flapping in the wind. Best of all they were sparkling white helped by the addition of a little washing blue.
In time the other ladies of the village got to hear of Larry. They viewed Betty as a very fortunate lady to have such an invention to preserve the sparkling white of the nappies. Betty, of course, did not want to admit to being afraid and smiled when they gushed over her washing. Soon Rodney was sharing the arcane secrets of the manufacture of Larry. Husbands either made one for their wives or persuaded Rodney to create more. There they stood like sentinels under the huge shady trees in most back gardens. A transformation occurred in the village as they directed water into little vegetable gardens.
They still talked about Rodney after he left since his invention had brought about many changes. Not only did the clothes keep their true colours, but there was the fresh food resulting from the water pumped into the little veggie gardens.
Betty did not want to say how pleased she was to leave Larry behind when they moved into the city and eagerly she adopted a twin tub machine that did not fill her with so much dread.