The history of the kettle

From ‘booby trap for old ladies’ to efficient maker of heatwave-defying pot of tea

During the recent heat wave I realised just how assimilated to Ireland I have become. No, it wasn't because I complained that the temperature was too high just three days in. It was because I kept making cups of tea, hot cups of tea. Somehow in 17 years a beverage I just about tolerated in cold weather became suitable refreshment for any weather.

This got me thinking about the technology that I use to make my tea. I imagine that almost every household in Ireland owns an electric kettle. They are, to my continued surprise, not very popular in the United States. One of the earliest uses of electricity to power a small household appliance, the kettle hasn't changed very much in over 50 years.

An electric kettle changes electrical energy into heat (just another form of energy), the heat then boils the water. Heat is generated by passing an electrical current through a material that provides resistance. The bottom of the kettle is generally where heat is created, replacing the fire over which it might have been boiled. The use of electricity to produce “clean” heat in the home expanded in the 1880s with a particular focus on cooking technologies such as electric stoves. However, it was not until the 20th century that the availability of household wiring and the lower price of electricity made home electrical appliances more attractive. Small appliances were connected at a lamp socket, in place of the lamps that represented the first use of electricity in homes.

Not efficient

Early electric kettles look exactly like standard kettles except with a flex attached. They were not as efficient as current kettles, taking perhaps 20 minutes to boil. One model, the Prometheus kettle from the turn of the century, can still be found as an antique. In 1929, the ESB advertised a copper "electric automatic safety kettle" that looked much like the Prometheus of 30 years before. They enticed customers with the promise that the kettle "will not get black" and was "absolutely clean because electricity heats without flame".


Death by electrocution

The automatic safety element the ESB advertised was one of the first modifications of the design. Prior to its introduction, it was possible to boil the kettle dry causing the kettle to fail and risking an electrical fire. Yet the safety device created its own problems. A person whose kettle had stopped working was tempted to investigate the cause of the failure themselves. Death by electrocution often followed. A series of articles in the British Medical Journal as late as the 1960s suggested that women over 60 were particularly vulnerable to electrocution "due to the use of scissors in the investigation of the connectors of electric irons and kettles". One doctor even described the electric kettle with its safety device as "a booby trap for old ladies".

Unbeknown to the old ladies and indeed their old doctors, a modified safety switch was already available. The new switch, one that we tea drinkers are familiar with from its happy click, was operated by steam and turned off the kettle once it had boiled. The kettle did not boil dry nor did it short circuit and those thirsty for tea were not tempted to poke at wiring with the nearest available pointed object. By the 1960s the electric tea kettle was a standard, and safe, home appliance.

Johnstown Castle

If you are intrigued by the history of household technologies then I recommend a visit to Johnstown Castle in Co Wexford. The gardens are beautiful for a walk and you can even feed the peacocks. But if you fancy a break from the heat, or you're lucky enough to get a rainy day, the museum is well worth a visit.

Billed as an agricultural museum, this is in many ways really a museum of the history of technology. There is plenty of technology relating to farming from early tractors to milking machines to pesticide spreaders. On the very top floor, almost at the end of the exhibition is an exploration of household technologies. You can compare model kitchens pre and post electrification and read about a variety of different home electrical devices and their introduction. And then you can go downstairs to refresh yourself with a cup of tea and an excellent scone.

Dr Juliana Adelman lectures in history at Dublin City University