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K1235 'Compressed air' manual washing machine, galvanised iron / cast iron, made by Wolter, Echberg & Co, 6 Russell Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1879-1889. Click to enlarge.

Wolter & Echberg “Compressed Air” manual washing machine, 1879-1889

This piece of domestic technology is a manually operated washing machine marketed as the "Compressed Air" model and made in Melbourne by Echberg, Wolter & Co. in about 1879. Dirty clothes, soaked in hot water, soap and washing soda (sodium carbonate), were placed in the "torpedo-shaped" tub, which pivoted on a stand. The lid was sealed and by rocking the tub for about five minutes the washing was said to have been completed.

This Australian designed and made washing machine is certainly an unusual one for the time. The usual types available were mostly imported from England and the USA, comprised a wooden box or tub with internal corrugations, and agitated the clothes by turning or beating them with internal paddles.

Throughout the 1800s and into the first half of the 1900s washing clothes was a laborious and time consuming weekly chore which took a full day to complete, usually on a Monday. This machine was certainly an improvement on the hard work of scrubbing clothes against a washboard in a tub but it still required a considerable amount of labour. This was to fill and empty the machine twice by hand, to wash, squeeze out and then rinse and remove the heavy wet washing, wring it out again and then hang it on the line.

In an effort to produce an effective washing machine that imitated hand washing, by the 1870s some 2,000 patents had been issued in the USA alone. As well as the machines themselves, there were also many wringers and mangles to squeeze out the washing water, not to mention boilers and coppers. However, the invention of the first electric washing machine, patented in 1910, was the true turning point in washing machine design, leading to washing machines eventually becoming real labour-saving devices. However, most women in Australia had to wait until the 1950s or 60s for their first electric washing machine, when there was greater prosperity and the ready availability of electricity, to release them from laundry drudgery.

Margaret Simpson
Curator, Science Technology & Industry
March 2012

The Sydney International Exhibition' in Australian Town and Country Journal, 5 October 1879 p.7.

Troy, Patrick Nicol, "A History of European Housing in Australia", Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 100-102.


Object No.


Object Statement

'Compressed air' manual washing machine, galvanised iron / cast iron, made by Wolter, Echberg & Co, 6 Russell Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1879-1889

Physical Description

'Compressed air' manual washing machine, galvanised iron / cast iron, made by Wolter, Echberg & Co., 6 Russell Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1879-1889

This washing machine is made of galvanised iron with a distinctive rocket or torpedo shape. A central drum, with two cone-shaped ends, contained the water and suds in which the clothes were washed. There are two riveted handles and a patent stamp in relief on the top cone, which was removable, and a rocking handle on the bottom cone. The drum is supported in a four-legged cast-iron frame in which it rocked from end-to-end to agitate the clothes.



1310 mm


490 mm


660 mm


38 kg



This washing machine was made by the Melbourne firm of Wolter & Echbert established by Friedrich Wolter and Hans Echberg. In 1875 this firm applied for a patent for 'improvements in clothes-washing machines'. The basis of their application was the addition of the corrugated semicircular lining inside the tub. As similar inventions had already been patented, their patent was only partially granted and applied only to the corrugated lining. An all-timber washing machine on a stand was exhibited by the firm in Melbourne in 1875.

A further patent No. 658 was taken out on 4 March 1878 for an improved clothes washer. The compressed air version of their washing machine, of which this is an example, was exhibited and demonstrated at the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 and recorded in the "Australian Town and Country Journal" of that year as "An interesting trial took place on Monday after noon in the Machinery Hall, of Messrs. Wolter and Echberg's new patent galvanised iron washing machine, for which Messrs, Holdsworth, Gardyne, and Co. of this city are the agents. The machine claims to be the simplest and most effective of all machines for household washing purposes. It is exceedingly simple and handy and easily worked. It is made of the very best galvanised iron, and is like a small barrel, having conical ends and placed on a rocker. The clothes which underwent the trial were exceedingly dirty, far more so than an ordinary household washing would be, and the test in this respect was a very good one. The clothes washed were canvas, such as those used by engineers and firemen at work, and woollen shirts. The clothes are first soaked and soaped in the ordinary manner, a handful of Soda is added, the clothes are put into the cylinder, hot water is poured in, and the top of the cylinder is then closed in. The machine is then rocked to and fro easily for five minutes, when the cylinder is opened, and the clothes are found to be perfectly clean and ready for rinsing, wringing, and drying. The cleansing process is caused by the compressed air and steam, and the machine being perfectly airtight, the rocking motion forces the steam through the clothes and thoroughly cleanses them. The patentees claim for the machine that it does the work equal to the best hand washing, free from counter-friction, and does not chafe or tear the articles. Only the weight of the clothes rub against each other and the inside of the machine. It will wash the heaviest quilts or blankets as well as the finest lace or muslin. The test altogether was pronounced a very satisfactory one, and the machine will certainly tend to do away with much of the unpleasantness and hard work of washing day. The price, too, is cheap, and within the reach of everyone. The patentees have been awarded a large number of prizes for this machine, and it is well worth an inspection by householders. It will be shown at work almost every afternoon, and is situated at the south end of the first machinery hall."

The marketing pitch that the machine operated on compressed air, with the pressure apparently built up in the sealed and confined space of the tub, would probably not have made any difference to the wash. With the widespread use of steam power, it was a creative but unsubstantiated marketing claim.



This washing machine was purchased from an antique shop in South Caulfield, Melbourne, in 1985.


Credit Line

Purchased 1984

Acquisition Date

6 September 1984

Cite this Object


Wolter & Echberg "Compressed Air" manual washing machine, 1879-1889 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 26 November 2020, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Wolter & Echberg "Compressed Air" manual washing machine, 1879-1889 |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=26 November 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}
This object is currently on display in Social History at the Museums Discovery Centre.


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