A brief history of the electric fan: One of the earliest mass-produced home appliances

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Milica Sterjova
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The earliest fans were invented thousands of years ago. Several of the great civilizations of the world have contributed the development and design of different varieties of fans. The Chinese were among the first to mechanize the fan. During the Han Dynasty, Ding Huan, a Chinese craftsman, invented a rotary fan which could be operated by a single man and cool larger spaces. During the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese found a way to use hydraulic power to move them. A major development happened in the mid-1830s with the introduction of steam-powered fans. A bit later, the spread of electricity in Europe and America allowed for the development of electric fans.

Electric fans are the invention of American electrical engineer Schuyler Skaats Wheeler. Based on Tesla and Edison’s work on electricity, he designed the first fan in 1882. It consisted of two propellers attached to an electric motor and had no protective case. His invention was first commercialized by the Curtis & Crocker Company where Wheeler was a plant manager. The electric fans were produced later by the Crocker-Wheeler Company. The early models weren’t exactly safe. The blades turned with an incredible speed and the lack of protection led to accidents. These early fans were quite expensive so they could be found either in wealthy families’ houses or in offices.

The 1890s brought several improvements to the design. Protective cages were introduced, not to protect the user’s fingers, but to protect the expensive fan blades. The motor and the wiring were concealed. The first fans used direct current. After Tesla’s work on the induction motor, the manufacturers started using it for the fans

Crocker-Wheeler electric fan, 1892.

A further development in the electric fan design was brought by a German-American engineer Philip H. Diehl, who invented the electrically-powered ceiling fan. At the time Diehl was working at the Singer Company. His fan was created after he attached the blades to an adapted Singer sewing machine motor and mounted the fan on the ceiling

Bipolar Wall Fan, Western Electric Company, 1880s – Museum of Science and Industry. Author: Daderot. CC0 1.0

Diehl received a patent for his product in the late 1880s, but he continued to improve his invention over the next several years. A major improvement was the addition of a light bulb that he added to the fan. Initially, his fans were introduced in factories in order to keep goods and workers cool. They were later included in larger spaces such as restaurants, offices, and hotels before finally arriving in private homes.

Fans from the early 20th century in EDF Electropolis Museum. Author: Arnaud 25. CC BY-SA 3.0

More and more fan manufacturers appeared in the late 1890s and early 1900s, including Emerson, Westinghouse, and General Electric, among others. The competition brought new inventions and additions to the design, including new blade shapes and increased blade number. During this time, the first oscillating electric fans appeared on the market.

Fan with Tesla induction motor, 1892-1896; Museum of Science and Industry. Author: Daderot. CC0 1.0

In 1910, the first electric fan for household use was introduced by Westinghouse. The fans were typically made from brass, up until World War I, when brass became scarce because it was used for ammunition. It was replaced by steel and later by aluminum which allowed the machine to be considerably lighter.

“Emerson Junior” electric fan from the mid-20th century. Author: Infrogmation. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1910s, air conditioners started replacing electric fans in commercial buildings, so many of the manufacturers discontinued their production. Companies concentrated on improving electric fans for home usage. General Electric made a huge step in making the fans quieter by developing overlapping blades in the 1920s.

GE electric fan from early 20th century. Author: Infrogmation. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1930s, Emerson introduced an iconic blade design inspired by a yacht propeller. It was called the Silver Swan and was the creation of a young designer by the name of Jane Evans.

Siemens fan, 1920.

By the 1950s, air conditioning had become available for domestic households and fans began to lose their popularity. However, with the oil crisis and increased energy costs, they made a comeback in the 1970s. In 2009 Dyson patented a new design for a bladeless fan. Some people still prefer electric fans to air conditioners today due to their energy efficiency, longer life span, lower cost, and portability.