A mid-century icon, the Teasmade—an automatic tea-maker and alarm clock—now has enormous nostalgia value. But the story of this retro machine actually goes back over 100 years—and forward into our automated future.
The Teasmade is strongly associated with the aesthetic of the 1960s and 1970s, but automated tea-makers had been thought of as early as the late 19th century.
These early machines signalled the beginning of a trend for domestic automation which has never really gone away, continuing right up to today's internet-connected smart home technology.
Alarm bells: Early automatic tea-makers
The first tea-making machine was invented by Charles Maynard Walker in 1891, followed by an 'Automatic Tea-Making Apparatus' patented by Samuel Rowbottom in 1892. This machine required a pilot light and was lit by gas—not a great contraption to have next to you while you sleep.
This was followed in 1902 by the equally dubious, but slightly more commercially successful, 'Clock That Makes Tea', which used methylated spirits to heat the water.
How did it work? When the alarm clock went off, a match was struck to light the spirit lamp beneath the kettle. When the kettle boiled, it would tilt forward and pour into a waiting cup (although adverts said you could make tea and coffee or boil your shaving water with it).
A second alarm would go off when the tea was ready—if you had somehow slept through the commotion.
These early automatic tea makers were born during one of the first domestic appliance booms.
In late 19th and early 20th-century Britain, domestic service was in decline—particularly in big cities—and middle-class homes which traditionally relied on human labour were turning to mechanical means to try to ease the household burden.
Whether or not any of these devices actually saved any work is debatable. But household technologies were developing at great speed, changing the face of domestic work.
The golden age of the Teasmade
Between 1890 and 1910, inventions such as the motorised vacuum cleaner and the electric toaster were developed and became commercially successful. At the same time, travel and transport were bringing the world closer together, with goods moving back and forth in ever greater quantities.
Throughout the 19th century the UK’s tea consumption increased and tea became affordable to even the poorest. Since the turn of the 20th century, Britain has remained one of the world’s most voracious per-capita consumers of tea.
The early 20th century also saw domestic electricity bringing big changes in home technology. By the end of the 1930s, two-thirds of British homes had electricity, which meant an automatic cup of tea no longer involved sleeping next to an open flame.
Conditions were ideal for this very British invention to take off. Automatic tea-makers became ‘Teasmades’, made accessible by the new electricity supply.
In 1936, one of the first to be commercially produced was the Goblin Teasmade. Early models included a lamp as well as a kettle, and some are known to have had radioactive radium paint on their clock faces, which made them glow in the dark.
Goblin, part of the British Vacuum Cleaner & Engineering Company (the domestic appliance company founded by Hubert Cecil Booth, inventor of the vacuum cleaner) became the most established name in the market.
Perhaps their best-known models came in the 1960s, with lamps built into a faux-art deco body.
This iteration of the Teasmade was so ubiquitous that it featured prominently in the video for Queen’s 1984 single 'I Want to Break Free', waking (and burning) guitarist Brian May.
The future of the Teasmade
Despite its former popularity, by 1980 the classic Teasmade was on its way out. The machine’s appearance in one of Queen’s most iconic music videos was perhaps a signal of its downfall, with 'I Want to Break Free' mocking a number of old-fashioned domestic stereotypes.
In the early 1980s, the Goblin company was sold to Swan (who still make Teasmades 40 years later), but the once-ubiquitous bedside servant had had its day.
Domestic work has been an inescapable fact of life ever since humans have lived in homes (of all kinds). We have long looked for ways to ease the burden of housework, but labour-saving devices often tend to change how we work, rather than save us time. The Teasmade, for example, just moved the tea-making process to the night before your cuppa (or removed the need for a servant to bring you one).
But smart homes and ever-improving timer technology mean that the automatic cuppa is making a comeback in a digital form.
Since that first domestic appliance boom in the late 19th century, waves of new gadgets have supposedly eased the household burden—but as new machines raise standards, ever more work is expected of us.
New domestic gadgets have entered the house, which need cleaning and maintenance themselves. This domestic burden is one that continues to fall to women—in heterosexual couples where both partners work full time, it has repeatedly been found that women are doing a disproportionate amount of domestic labour.
And 21st-century domestic technology is bringing new problems into the home.
Wireless internet connectivity has given us the Internet of Things, making increasingly sophisticated automation possible—from voice-activated home assistants to kettles, fridges and other appliances controlled from your smartphone.
Concerns about smart home technology centre on hackability, data collection, surveillance and privacy rather than sleeping near open flames and boiling water. As the market for this technology continues to grow, there remains a price to pay for convenience in the home.
As for our morning cuppa, for now the smart technology for a hassle-free cup of tea still isn’t quite up to scratch.
Find out more
- National Science and Media Museum blog, How switched on are you?
- Wired, What is the Internet of Things?
- Vox, People say they care about privacy but continue to buy devices that can spy on them
- BBC Travel, The true story behind England's tea obsession