We’re used to our domestic appliances being completely automated in 2020, but not so long ago they were much simpler affairs. Not everything required a human to run it though, an unexpected piece of electromechanical automation could be found in British bedrooms. This is the story of the Goblin Teasmade, an alarm clock with a little bit extra.
But Does It Make The Tea?
All countries have their own oddities that everyone who hails from them know, and are surprised when they find that nowhere else in the world has heard of them. I can’t speak for readers outside the UK, but for us those things include Christmas crackers and Marmite.
There’s another one that nobody but Brits have heard of though, and it’s the Teasmade. An unexpected confluence of alarm clock and teapot that would wake its owner to a hot cup of tea at their bedside, your aunt or your grandmother would have probably had one back in the 1970s. It’s a gloriously naff piece of mid-century ephemera that is not part of the typical house in the 2020s, but on the other hand it’s an electromechanical curiosity that bears a second look. For a few tenners at our favourite online auction house I secured a Teasmade — a late 1960s model 834B — and set to work with it on the bench.
What I unwrapped was a unit the size of a stack of hardback books, with an angular ’60s styled clock and lamp assembly at the front. Behind the clock is a platform hosting a curiously cube-like teapot and an electric kettle. The teapot is completely conventional, but the kettle is not the same as your everyday one. The spout is a pipe that protrudes into the body of the kettle down to just above the element, and instead of fitting loosely its lid engages and turns to form a tight seal. The final feature at the back of the unit is that the kettle sits upon a sprung platform with a switch underneath it, which is designed to settle down and close only when it has a load of water in it.
They Didn’t Need Microcontrollers In Those Days
Electrically it’s a simple enough design. The clock is an AC-synchronous mechanical unit typical of what could be found in millions of homes worldwide at the time. When its alarm is triggered it closes the circuit through the kettle platform switch (ensuring it’s not heating an empty kettle) and to the kettle element via the flying lead. Once the kettle boils it forces the hot water up the spout by steam pressure. As the water leaves the kettle, the switch in the platform opens. This shuts off the element and in turn completes a circuit that sets off a buzzer and powers up the lamp. A pair of switches on the front allow control of both buzzer and lamp.
Setting it up is a case of filling the kettle, putting a pair of teabags in the teapot, and placing both in their respective positions on the back of the unit. Ensure both switches are in the correct position, and go to sleep until the alarm sounds and wakes you up with a cup of fresh tea awaiting in the teapot.
There’s one more interesting design feature at play. This is a small kettle with only a 600W element, about a quarter of that a standard British kettle has. It thus boils very slowly, and most importantly quietly, so it allows you to sleep soundly until the tea is ready. Alas, the effect is lost as the buzzer is a loud and raucous buzz, and hardly a relaxing sound to wake up to.
So Where Have All The Teasmades Gone?
The Teasmade may have had its heyday in the few decades following WW2, but the history of similar machines stretches back to the late 19th century. A patent search turns up a plethora of automatic tea and coffee makers, but the one that would become the Teasmade had its origins in the 1930s. British patent number 414088A was filed in 1933, and the design was refined and improved thereafter. Though it no longer enjoys the popularity it might have seem half a century ago it is still possible to buy a Teasmade, albeit one of a slightly different design.
In the 21st century we are surrounded by automated devices thanks to the easy availability of microcontrollers, so it is easy to forget that in decades past a simple electromechanical appliance such as this one would have seemed the last word in futuristic luxury. It’s interesting to note that the Texas Instruments TMS1000, the progenitor of all microcontrollers, had domestic appliances as one of its core target markets back in the early 1970s.
So why have we abandoned the fully automated wake-up that the Teasmade promised, and why do me not have a Wallace and Gromit style start to the day courtesy of modern silicon? I think the answer lies in the staid image I alluded to earlier, that it was the choice of bedside adornment for your middle-aged or elderly relatives rather than anybody remotely cool. The tea would have been poured into the bone china teacup set that Goblin sold as an accessory rather than into a chipped mug with a jokey slogan on it, and who on earth would want that in their 1980s bedsit? Perhaps Goblin said it best themselves in their advertising slogan: “The next best thing to sleeping“.
My Teasmade will be passed on to a retro-enthusiast friend to whom I owe a favour, and I hope it will complement the rest of her awesomely mid-century home. Meanwhile I’ll continue to stumble down the stairs every morning and make my tea the modern way; by hand.