History of the electric fan: The earliest mass-produced home appliances

Electric Oscillating Table Fan by Emerson

The electric fan was an invention of American engineer Schuyler Skaats Wheeler. However the earliest mechanical fan was 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, in around 180 AD, a Chinese craftsman named Ding Huan invented a rotary fan which could be operated by a single man and cool larger spaces than any hand-held fan.

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 few decades later, the spread of electricity in Europe and America allowed for the development of electric fans.

Crocker-Wheeler electric fan, 1892.

Harnessing the ideas of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, Schuyler Skaats Wheeler designed his prototype electrically powered fan in 1882.

It consisted of two propellers attached to an electric motor and had no protective case.

His invention was commercialized by the Curtis & Crocker Company, where Wheeler was a plant manager. The electric fans were produced later by the Crocker-Wheeler Company. The manufacturers used direct current, after Tesla’s work on the induction motor.

The early models weren’t exactly safe. The blades turned with incredible speed and the lack of protection led to accidents.

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

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. Also, the motor and the wiring were concealed.

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

A further development in fan design was brought by German-American engineer Philip H. Diehl, who invented the electric ceiling fan.

At the time Diehl was working for 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.

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.

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

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.

More and more fan manufacturers appeared in the late 1890s and early 1900s, including Emerson, Westinghouse, and General Electric.

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

Increasing competition brought pressure to refine and improve fan design, including new blade shapes and increased blade number. During this time, the first oscillating electric fans appeared on the market.

In 1910, the first electric fan for household use was introduced by Westinghouse. These 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.

GE electric fan, early 20th century design. Infrogmation. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1910s, air conditioners started replacing electric fans in commercial buildings, so many manufacturers discontinued production of commercial fan models.

Companies concentrated instead on improving electric fans for home use. General Electric made a huge step in the 1920s, making their fans quieter by developing overlapping blades.

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.

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Some people still prefer electric fans to air conditioners today due to their energy efficiency, longer life span, lower cost, and portability.