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The common kettle - not so common

"We overlook what we take for granted. Billions of tea drinkers observed the force of steam escaping from water boiling in a kettle before James Watt realized that this vapor could be converted into energy."

Richard Farson

I think this will be a quickie - a few facts is probably all I have to share.

The facts come from a throwaway statement during my Italian class this morning. I think we had to list things that were used in the house, and somebody suggested a kettle - il bollitore if you want to know what it is in Italian. However, our teacher commented that although the Italians have a word for it, they don't actually use them. Well not many people do. Which led to her telling us that neither do the Americans.

It's such an everyday item in all of our kitchens isn't it? Even if you don't like tea - like me. It's a very quick and convenient way of boiling water for whatever other reason you might have - peeling tomatoes by pouring over boiling water for example - that's what I mostly use it for. So the idea of Americans not having kettles - especially electric kettles was marginally mind-blowing. After all they seem to have invented just about every other modern household appliance - or at least refined them and produced them. And, in fact they have played their part in some of the kettle innovations that have occurred. And no you won't find one in your motel room there when you want to make yourself a cup of tea - or coffee.

The reason why - as a couple of websites told me is that their electricity comes at a lower voltage than here - well almost anywhere else. Which I confess I also find a little odd, but I do remember that. Therefore it takes longer to boil and so they just use a pan on the stove - or, as one commenter said: "People microwaved their water, I swear."

Which doesn't really explain why they didn't use them before electric kettles - which in fact were invented in the United States in 1891. Maybe they just didn't drink tea - although that is also hard to explain as the original settlers mostly came from England. Maybe it's all to do with the Boston tea party when the rebel Americans threw all the tea into the sea. Although maybe, now that I think about it, those original settlers came there before the real craze for tea in the 17th century. So let's just leave it at weird.

As for the Italians - and apparently at least the Spaniards - well they just don't do tea, so why would you need a kettle? Indeed I read somewhere that it's illegal to put a kettle in a hotel or B&B in Italy. And they do have small kitchens mostly so not a lot of space. I think the French have them though.

So who invented the kettle? Well just like almost everything else - well no - like a lot of things - the Mesopotamians way back in 3500BC. They were made of bronze but alas I can find no picture. Then came iron and cast iron and also copper which were the metals that were mostly used for hundreds of years. They were dangerous things. You could easily burn yourself on the kettle itself or the steam and the water which sometimes boiled over if it wasn't watched.

Then in 1923 came the whistling kettle invented by a Londoner called Harry Bramson in 1923 although an American had taken out a patent in 1891. This is the kind of kettle that I grew up with, although ours was plain old steel or maybe even aluminium - I have no idea. Now you knew when the water was boiling although you still had to get to it to turn it off fairly quickly.

The most comprehensive article I found about the history of kettles, was by a man called Christopher Roosen who has a website called Adventures in a Designed World. He called his article Electric Kettles, Burned Fingers and the Riddle of Commoditised Design and within it he tells us:

"Ironically, despite the oddly manic-but-cheerful sound of a kettle whistle, it was only recently that physics could explain why kettle whistles whistle."

and then quotes from an article by Kirk dated 2013 which explains:

"As steam comes up the kettle’s spout, it meets a hole at the start of the whistle, which is much narrower than the spout itself. This contracts the flow of steam as it enters the whistle and creates a jet of steam passing through it. The steam jet is naturally unstable, like the jet of water from a garden hose that starts to break into droplets after it has travelled a certain distance. As a result, by the time it reaches the end of the whistle, the jet of steam is no longer a pure column, but slightly disturbed. These instabilities cannot escape perfectly from the whistle and as they hit the second whistle wall, they form a small pressure pulse. This pulse causes the steam to form vortices as it exits the whistle. These vortices produce sound waves, creating the comforting noise that heralds a forthcoming cup of tea.” (Kirk, 2013)

But we didn't stop there. In 1956 Russell Hobbs came up with the first automatic kettle - one which turned off when the water reached boiling point, and which was powered by electricity.

There had been earlier versions of electric kettles - as far back a s1891 in America, but the water took forever to boil and I think all the various danger points were not solved for some time.

There have been all sorts of other safety issues - chemicals leaching into the water from the material the kettle was made of, scaling, electrocution, and so on. And doubtless some of them still exist.

These days however, with the more recent craze for tea, and also just because of inventive progress I guess, we now have kettles that will turn off at specific temperatures depending on what kind of tea you like. This is our current kettle. I say current, because they don't seem to last that long these days do they? But look at it. I won't say it's a thing of beauty, but it does look fairly stylish, and it is, of course - the frugal heritage thing - an Aldi product. Not only has the design of kettles improved out of sight, but the cost has come down enormously too.

So there you go - kettles. Something we just take for granted, but shouldn't. History, physics, archaeology, sociology, law, chemistry, economics and commerce, design, and at a bit of a stretch geography and agriculture too. So many subject covered by one ordinary everyday object.

The word by the way comes from the Old Norse 'ketill' which means cauldron. In Old English it was 'cetel'. Language too - and now that I think of it - literature. "Polly put the kettle on ..." and all those sayings around the word.


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