Retrotechtacular: Teasmade

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?

The height of late-1960s sophistication.
The height of late-1960s sophistication.

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 workings of one of the final iterations of the classic Teasmade, from UK patent GB1597834A, 1978.
The workings of one of the final iterations of the classic Teasmade, from UK patent GB1597834A, 1978.

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.

The Teasmade in its current form, the Swan Teasmade.
The Teasmade in its current form, the Swan Teasmade.

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.

66 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Teasmade

  1. I suspect that the Teasmaid was little more than a novelty even in its heyday. You still had to let the tea brew and then pour it out into a cup and, as most Brits have (had?) milk in their tea, add milk. It would be interesting to create a version that keeps the milk cool using a Peltier effect cooler and then automatically brews for the correct time and pours before setting off the alarm. Of course you would still have all the setup and clean up to do so it is probably easier just to go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Even so, it is a neat device!

    1. One might to be able to attribute the decline of the teasmade with the rise in popularity of central heating. Until UK got major amounts of natural gas, regular folks managed with a fireplace or two. Therefore, especially in winter, your room was quite chilly first thing in the morning, and a cup of tea fortified you to actually get out of bed, plus you milk did not curdle sitting out overnight. As people got gas central heating, it was less “character building” to just throw on a dressing gown/househoat and stumble to the kitchen, plus maintaining a steady 21C room temp, your milk may have curdled overnight.

      1. A few years ago I was living in a mid 19 century British made cottage in Dublin, I can tell you that the place at 6 am was cold and damp and one of those tea maker would have been a great thing to have close at hand before you got out of bed. You probably right, the central heating must have been the reason for it’s decline.

    2. If you’re adding a Peltier effect cooler, might as well make an Atlanta edition Teasmade that has a lead screw to dump in sugar while the tea is hot, then cool the tea to near-freezing temperatures. :) Although that’s not necessarily a morning beverage.

    3. Bang on right here. My parents had one as a wedding present. They quickly realised it gave them a choice:
      – black tea (no way!)
      – put milk in the cups and hope the milk doesn’t go bad overnight (urgh!)
      – get up and fetch the milk from the fridge, in which case, why not get up anyway?

      That said, the smell of tea did help them get up, but the novelty wore off fast, and they said it never made great tea.

      Awesome tear down Jenny! This is a classic bit of UK history. And good to know it had that safety pressure switch. I wish they could incorporate that into modern kettles.

    4. @hackadave, your comment on the peltier cooler makes me think that you have seen such a thing already. This device you allude to is currently available on Amazon for $445! (Search for Barisieur) It is important to me that it uses glass and metal fittings, instead of plastic, but until I win the lottery, I will stick with my $150 Avanti and keep the cream in the fridge.

    1. I feel like most of the cheap drip coffee makers (similar to a “mr coffee” but peobably not the genuine article) have (had?) this function, though their clock fave was a little digital one about the same size as that of a wristwatch.

  2. The modern coffee maker clock combos now seem to ALL include that, eye stabbingly painful to look at, ubiquitous blue digital display.
    A nice analogue clock dial (dotted with the gentle glow of toxic Radium, thank you!) would be awesome to find on the store shelf again.
    Heck, a set of Tritium numerals and hands would be an improvement over the LED displays and likely have thrice the life span of most coffee appliances these days.

      1. I had a clock radio with 5cm tall LCD with blue backlight. It impaired sleep a little, not because of the color, but because it just was very bright. Even the dark background transmitted a decent amount of light, because the contrast ratio of the LCD was not great.
        That does not change, that I strongly prefer a digital clock and it must not make a noise, must not “tick”, as this impairs sleep much more than any light of any color. OK, sunlight directly into the face also impairs sleep.

        1. I have a tower fan with setting label ‘night mode’. In night mode the fan turns off and on every 30 seconds and runs at low speed. To let you know it’s in night mode It……

          flashes a bright blue LED on and off .

          The LED doesn’t light up at any other time.

    1. My modern Mr Coffee has a non-backlit LCD, barely even visible after a couple years of use. In my last apartment the light angle was wrong and I used a flashlight (electric torch) to set the timer.

      The beeper when it finishes brewing is even a polite volume. It would work great in a bedroom, except that once awoken, I’d rather just get out of bed.

      Mostly I use the timer on mornings when my wife gets up early, so I don’t get drafted into rushed coffee duty.

      And with an insulated carafe and no heater under it, it will likely last decades. Eventually I’ll have to replace the LCD though.

  3. “I alluded to earlier, that it was the choice of bedside adornment for your middle-aged or elderly relatives rather than anybody remotely cool. ”

    Meh!

    Once somebody is being woken by your alarm clock your kind of beyond needing to look cool anyway. That was last night when the stand by your bed was less the object of attention. Besides, if you care what someone thinks just get a two-cup version and hand them one. They are thinking nice things now.

  4. those things include Christmas crackers
    Unless you’re calling Canada part of the UK then you’re wrong. Please please start checking your assumptions! Just a few simple web searches each time you write an article would fix so many problems!

          1. Vegemite is certainly stronger, but the flavour is different. We tried vegemite and went back.
            The other one we used to have was Bovril, a sort of beef-based marmite.

            Marmite is also probably the only company to successfully promote a product by the fact some people loath it, with their “you either love it or hate it” slogan.

          2. A wise approach, accepting that some customers simply will not like your product. As opposed to the makers of raisin oatmeal cookies, who are under the impression that if they gradually reduce oatmeal and raisin content, sooner or later people who hate either or both of those are sure to buy them.

      1. In all seriousness, Marmite is a spread, like butter or jam, made from salted yeast with a bunch of flavorings added in. At first it was a curiosity, and a way for breweries to make some money off the excess yeast, until it was found to contain a bunch of nutrients in the early 20th century, so it was marketed as a health food. After that, it just stuck around, like cod liver oil and Christmas cake.

      1. They are definitely around in Ontario, Zehrs usually has them, they’ll just be a single shelf with a choice of 2 or 3 if you’re lucky. I think Sobeys might have them too, don’t go in there much though.

  5. The automatic off-switch for the kettle resembles that of rice cookers.

    But in modern rice cookers, instead of relying on the weight of the pan, it’s actually a temperature switch. When all the water has boiled out, the temperature starts to climb above 100 C and that’s what throws the switch from “cook” to “warm” and stops the rice from burning.

    1. “and stops the rice from burning.”

      So accurate (“stops”, not, “prevents”)!
      The rice has already begun burning when the switch opens!
      But some people like their rice crust blackened and/or caramelized.

  6. For a long time in the late 90’s / early 2000’s I used a Tefal teamaker https://www.tefal.com/Breakfast/Kettles/2in1/MAGIC-TEA—BJ110010/p/7211001606 on an X10 controlled switch tied in to my home automation system. That was an only-very-slightly more advanced version. Combined with the microwave (with electromechanical timer), that gave several options to come down to in the morning – ideally bacon or porridge with a nice cuppa.

  7. 600W, a quarter of a normal kettle is why UK had industrial quality plug.
    No way you can reliably put 2.4kW in a EU plug (around 1kW is the limit, 2kw if plug once when new and never disconnected).

    I am sure it explain brexit also…

    All for a cup of tea

    1. Schuko plugs are approved for 16A, but we reccomend testing before putting that big load constant on them (IE charging electric cars for hours)
      A kettle is a short time load, and should not be a problem even @3kW

      1. The limit isn’t the wall plug. Wall sockets are wired up in groups with 10 or 16 Amps max current. This limits the maximum power draw of all sorts of appliances that might be plugged in to any socket, such as microwaves and vacuum cleaners, to approximately 1.5 kW max just so you would be less likely to pop your breakers the instant you turn it on. For example, if you’re running a toaster and a kettle off the same circuit.

        UK is a special case where the fuse is in the socket and/or in the appliance cable, because there’s the possibility of having ring mains in the house. Each device is current-limited individually, not as groups.

        1. What?

          Standard UK 3 pin plug sockets are rated for 13 Amps per socket. Any one appliance could draw up to 3.1kW through 1 plug without blowing anything up (assuming it’s all up to regs). If wired in a ring, the cable used is normally rated for 20A minimum, so the breaker for the ring will be a 30 or 40A max (20A each way around the ring circuit). If wired as spurs/daisy chain with no return to the consumer board, the breaker will be a max of 20A to stay within the ratings.

          As it is possible for the socket to deliver up to 3kW, appliances are fused appropriately within the plug/lead/back of the appliance.

          Yes it is possible to knock off a 20A breaker with enough stuff running. I’ve done it a couple of times before we had the house rewired. Needed washing machine, tumble dryer, microwave, toaster and kettle all on the same circuit to do it though (flipping the kettle on was what tripped it in the end).

          It is possible to get 16A rated wall sockets and plugs, but these typically have round earth pins rather than rectangular and won’t fit a regular socket. It is also possible to get blue “commando style” wall mounted sockets that start at around 16A but you wouldn’t see these in a normal house (except maybe in a workshop).

  8. No points for guessing what you’ll find on the night stand next to your bed (well, couch) the next time you come by… But seriously, what a great gift and a lovely write up. Thank you for both, and you have secured yourself a pied-à-terre for your next trip.

    1. Like almost all clocks and watches, you turn the time-setting knob BACKWARDS to remove it.
      So, looking from the rear (towards the knob)….
      To advance the clock hands you turn the knob anti-clockwise.
      To remove the knob, you turn the knob clockwise.
      I just tested this on our Goblin model 834, as I just filled it with water for my 95 year old mother!!

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