The evolution of the kettle: From Mesopotamian tool to an essential modern kitchen appliance

One of the most used pots for making tea throughout the centuries is the kettle, also known as a tea kettle: specialized for boiling water, with a handle, lid, and spout. A very early example of a kettle has been found by archaeologists which was probably used between 3500 and 2000 BC in ancient Mesopotamia. It is made of bronze and shaped in the same way as a modern kettle, but it is thought to have been used for filtering rather than boiling water.

At first, the reason for boiling water was to remove impurities so that it was safe to drink. Up until the invention of the electric kettle, the vessel would be heated by placing it over a fire or on the stove. In ancient China, during the Shang Dynasty, the Chinese started to put green tea leaves in the boiled water to add a flavor and that lead to the formation of tea. Initially, tea was used for medical purposes, however, it soon became widely enjoyed as a refreshing drink. The Chinese later began to make highly decorated tea kettles and cups from porcelain.

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In Europe, many nomads also started to make tea but they used different leaves to get that extra flavor. Wheat and barley would also be added to the boiled water, leading to the development of malt beer. The kettle came into popular use in many different countries, and besides tea, it was used for making coffee, cocoa, hot chocolate, etc.

Naxi wooden kettle from China.

In North America, cowboys and farmers used a kettle when they were traveling or working in the fields so it was necessary to make the pots robust and unbreakable so they can use them many times. Until the 19th century, they were made from iron, and from then on, the standard material was copper. Copper kettles required constant cleaning because they became tarnished with use.

After the 19th century, the kettles were mostly made of copper.

At the end of the 19th century, the Crompton and Co. firm from the United Kingdom invented the electric kettle which was made as an alternative to stove top kettles. In 1893, they put the object in their catalogs and it became popular immediately. The product was a little inefficient because, unlike modern electric kettles, it was designed with separate compartments for the water storage and the electric heating element.

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Cast iron kettle from Norway. Author: China Crisis. CC BY-SA 3.0

This problem was solved in 1922, by an engineer who was working at Bulpitt & Son’s, Leslie Large. Although he may not have been first, Large is known around the world as the inventor of the electric kettle because of the object’s perfect functioning. His solution was to wind a wire around a core and seal this inside a tube.

Electric kettle, designed by Peter Behrens at the beginning of the 20th century.

This element could be directly immersed in the water and that way the kettle could boil water much faster. After the company had registered the “Swan” brand name in the early 20th century, the pot, which even looks like a swan, was called the Swan electric kettle. Soon after it was put on the market, many other companies around the world started to produce similar appliances.

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The famous whistling kettle. Author: I, Holger.Ellgaard. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the meantime, the whistling kettle was made which became popular and used all around the world. When the water boils, steam is forced through a small opening at the top which results in a whistling sound similar to a locomotive. In 1955, the first fully automatic kettle was invented, the steel K1 model founded by the Russell Hobbs company.

The modern and frequently used plastic kettle.

Today, a kettle can be found in almost every home around the world. Modern designs employ the use of a bimetallic strip thermostat so that the kettle can shut-down automatically once the water is boiled. The thermostat is isolated from the water and is heated by the steam. The trend for the shape of kettles has changed with kitchen fashion styles and currently “retro” designs are becoming popular again.