The earliest recognized kettle-shaped vessel was discovered in Mesopotamia and dates back to between 3500 and 2000 B.C.E. It’s made from bronze and features a decorated spout. However, aside from its similar shape, experts don’t believe that it shares any comparable functions with the kettle which has evolved over the past 200 years.
The history of the electric kettle is linked with that of early iron and copper kettles, which were originally used for cooking. Kettles for cooking eventually evolved into tea kettles, which took different forms in various countries. The elegant Russian samovar, made of metal, is thought to have originated in Persia. In England, silver kettles became part of the English tea tradition during the 1700s. Up to this point, kettles were still placed over a flame, and this practice continued until the end of the 19th century, when the drudgery of boiling water began to change dramatically.
The electric kettle was invented to quench the thirst of British tea drinkers sometime in the late nineteenth century. Although the invention of the electric kettle cannot be attributed to one single person, it is said that the first one was made by Compton and Co in 1891.
Over the years many versions came and went. Many were inefficient, slow and expensive to operate until 1922 when The Swan Company produced the first electric kettle with a built-in heating element.
During the 1930s, metal kettles with Bakelite handles and lids grew popular until metal became in short supply during World War II. For this reason, ceramic kettles began to grow in popularity.
First Electric Kettle
The Carpenter Electric Company of Chicago introduced its first electric kettle in 1891. It had a heating element in a separate compartment beneath the water. The same year, a British inventor, R.E.B. Crompton of Crompton and Company in the United Kingdom, developed a heat radiator concept for the electric kettle. When the Carpenter Electric Company exhibited its electric kettle at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the company had incorporated Crompton’s heat radiator concept.
In 1922, The Swan Company introduced the first electric kettle with a built-in heating element. The heating element was encased in a metal tube that was housed in the water chamber of the kettle. This design grew in popularity in subsequent years. During the 1930s, metal kettles with Bakelite handles and lids were the fashion. With the outbreak of World War II, metal grew to be in short supply, and ceramic kettles took the place of the metal models of previous years.
First Automatic Kettle
Credit for creating the first automatic electric kettle goes to Russell Hobbs, a company established in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s by William Russell (1920 to 2006) and Peter Hobbs (1916 to 2008). Prior to this, electric kettles might boil dry if unattended, or cause electric shocks. In the automatic electric kettle first manufactured by Russell Hobbs in 1955, a bimetallic strip tripped the kettle’s “off” switch when steam was forced through the lid aperture to the strip.
Electric Kettle – Heritage and History at Russell Hobbs
Russell Hobbs founders Bill Russell and Peter Hobbs changed the industry with their groundbreaking vapour-controlled K1 design in 1955. This was the first automatic electric kettle to hit the shops and it quickly grew in popularity.
Prior to the K1 model, kettles were prone to boiling dry if left unattended, which was never the safest method of boiling water for households around Britain.
Over the subsequent years Russell Hobbs continued to lead the way in kettle manufacturing and in 1960 the iconic K2 kettle was born. This quickly became a hit and was the must have kitchen appliance during the 1960s and 1970s.
It is interesting to note that through the years, inventors have continued to create improvements to the kettle. In 1923, Arthur L. Large of the United Kingdom invented the kettle’s first fully immersible heat resistor. In the early 1930s, a kettlemaker named Walter H. Bullpitt invented the electric kettle safety valve. The British inventor and entrepreneur John C. Taylor created and perfected the kettle thermostat, which ensures that the kettle switches off after the water is boiled. Taylor’s company, Castletown Thermostats (later renamed Strix Ltd.,), sold hundreds of millions of these devices. Predating the kettle thermostat, a patent application in Wisconsin by female inventors Louisa and Agide Beaudette included an illustration of their “improvement in kettle covers.”
In the early years of electricity, manufacturers tended to concentrate on producing small
appliances such as kettles and tabletop hotplates. This was because both electricity itself
and electrical appliances were expensive. Electrical appliances were targeted at larger,
wealthier households. An advantage of electric kettles and hotplates was that they could
be used in the room where the family ate its meals as well as in the kitchen. In the
wealthier households that could afford electricity, the kitchen might be on a different
floor from the main living rooms, so serving foods and beverages hot was a challenge.
The first electric kettle was exhibited in 1893 by the Carpenter Electric Co. at an exhibition
in Chicago. By the following year, the British firm of Crompton & Co. was featuring electric
kettles in its catalogue. The main problem with early electric kettles was that they were
very inefficient. For safety reasons, the element had to be housed in a separate
compartment at the base. This meant that water was heated indirectly, as with a
traditional stovetop kettle. However, the electric element produced less heat than a gas
ring so electric kettles took longer to boil than stovetop kettles. Also, the concealed builtin
element could not be replaced if the kettle boiled dry and burnt out the element.
To protect against this, boil-safe devices were developed. The first type was the fusible
cutout, as used in the Archer kettle of 1902. Like an electric fuse, this broke the electric
circuit by melting a metal alloy, but the cutout was in the kettle rather than in the plug.
Stylistically, early electric kettles were completely
traditional. They were usually made of copper or
brass with wooden handles. Working for AEG
(Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesellschaft), the
German designer Peter Behrens was the first to
introduce variety and modern elegance. In 1908
to 1909, he designed a range of kettles with
choices of shape, material and finish. AEG was
also the first company to experiment with an
immersible element. However, until the early
1920s, the more common solution was to attach
the element to the underside of the kettle, where
it was accessible for replacement.
In 1922, Leslie Large, an electrical engineer at Bulpitt & Sons of Birmingham, patented a
type of immersible element that was to become standard for electric kettles. The element consisted of wire wound around a mica core and sheathed in a flat metal tube. As it heated the water directly, it made the electric kettle more efficient than stove top kettles.
Bulpitt & Sons, which used the Swan brand name for its products, claimed another
advance with the introduction of a spring-loaded self-ejecting lead connector in 1937.
During the inter-war period, kettle design still
tended to be conservative, although some
kettles were produced in more stylised Art
Deco-influenced designs. It was only in the
late 1940s that electric kettle design was
truly modernised. One of the first
distinctively modern kettles was HMV’s
Bentinck model, designed by Christian
Barman and registered in 1949. Its chromeplated finish became common in the 1950s.
The British company Russell Hobbs,
founded in 1952, established a reputation
for stylish products. Its stainless steel K1
electric kettle of 1955 was the first fully automatic kettle. Automatic kettles have switches
containing a bimetallic strip that flexes, when heated by steam, to cut off the current.
The standard shape and material of electric kettles changed radically in the last quarter of
the twentieth century. Until the early 1970s, the use of plastic had been confined to
handles. Newer plastics, developed in the late 1950s, were lightweight yet durable and
heat-resistant. Polyacetal was the first plastic to be used for kettle bodies, superseded in
the late 1970s by polypropylene. The advent of polypropylene coincided with the
reemergence of the jug kettle, which soon became the dominant type of electic kettle. Small
electric jugs had been available before the First World War. They were intended for
heating sufficient water or milk for one hot drink or heating water for shaving. The jug
shape had been tried for kettles but with little popular success, although it was common
for electric coffee percolators. Its main advantage was that it was more economical for
boiling small amounts, as less water was needed to cover the element.
Functionality rather than style has characterised the jug kettle, although some makers,
such as Philips in partnership with Alessi, have used design as a selling point. The
emphasis on convenience and performance was shown by the introduction of features
such as the water level gauge and the mesh lime scale filter that could be removed for
cleaning. The arrival of the ‘cordless kettle’ in 1986 marked a more radical advance.
Although not truly cordless, in the sense of a cordless drill, fitting the lead to a base that
the kettle sits in made it much easier to detach the kettle for refilling. Latterly, changes to
electric kettles have been largely cosmetic, although a new approach to the lime scale
problem has been to use more resistant elements, such as the flat element in the Russell
Hobbs Millennium model. By 2000, about half of kettles sold in Britain were cordless
models. Today, the electric kettle is taken for granted as a piece of kitchen equipment.