Posted in Reference
There are so many appliances we take for granted in our kitchens, yet despite its diminutive size the automatic electric kettle is arguably the most frequently used. Replacing a broken kettle becomes a top priority the moment it gives up the ghost and not just because it's relatively cheap to replace; making a cup of tea via a saucepan on the stove is both time consuming and inconvenient.
For the advent of the electric kettle we have to travel back to the latter part of the nineteenth century. Electric lighting had begun to appear in prosperous cities and homes from the 1880s, after the invention of the light bulb. During the very early years of electricity, kettles and hotplates were the appliances that manufacturers concentrated their efforts on. These were items useful to wealthy households, where the kitchen was on a separate floor to the family's living space and serving hot drinks and meals was a challenge. A kettle and hotplate in the dining room was therefore an advantage, but as with any new invention the kettle had its drawbacks. The element couldn't be replaced if the kettle was left to boil dry and the element burnt out. In addition, the element was encased in a separate compartment at the base for safety reasons and so because the water was heated indirectly, it took a long time for it to boil. In fact, as an electric element produced less heat than a gas ring, stove top kettles were still faster at this stage.
It wasn't until 1922 that Lesley Large, an electrical engineer working for Bulpitt and sons in Birmingham patented an immersible element. The brand name used by the company for its products was Swan, an electrical brand that maintains a market presence to this day. The increased boiling speed meant that the immersible element soon became the standard. Prices were steep though at over £50 in today's money. The cost, coupled with the fact that gas was still the only energy source supplied to many households at the time, meant that the stove top kettle was still more commonly used. The grid didn't operate as a national system until 1938, by which time the number of households being supplied with electricity had swelled to nine million. Then, once the war and the period of austerity that followed had given way to the relative prosperity of the mid 1950s, ordinary people had a disposable income for the first time. They spent this on luxuries like holidays and labour saving electrical appliances. The electric kettle hasn't looked back since.
Advances in kettle technology since then have included the invention of the fully automatic kettle in 1955 by Russell Hobbs and the use of plastic, rather than metal or ceramic, particularly with the development of polypropylene in the 1970s. A far more useful step forward though, was surely the introduction of the cordless kettle in 1986. Twenty five years on, this has become the new standard, as surely as Swan's immersible element became the new standard back in the 1920s.