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History of the Hair Dryer

Buzzle Staff
What would it be like to fear injury and possible death every time you had to dry your hair? It wasn't that long ago that the hair dryer was a very dangerous appliance, and it wasn't long ago that it didn't exist at all. Technology to the rescue!
When it comes to history, it's the big things that come to mind. Wars, politics, exploration and invention are all a tremendous part of our history as a species, but we too often take the little things for granted, forgetting that they, too, have interesting stories behind them.
Take the hair dryer, for example. It's very likely that you have one in your home, and a significant portion of the population uses one every day. You can buy one in any drug store for just a few dollars - it's easy to forget what a convenience they are.
Think about it - the ability to dry your hair in minutes, right in the palm of your hand, complete with different attachments to alter the air flow. The typical hair dryer offers adjustable heat, adjustable speed, and is lightweight enough to be used by a child. It wasn't always this easy.


For most of human history, people simply allowed their hair to air dry. We still do today on occasion, so you know that a thick head of hair can stay wet for hours.
Not a big deal at the beach in July, but imagine having to endure that in January with nothing more than a hearth fire for heat. Sure, hair wasn't washed as often back then, but it still got wet - rain has been a part of the human experience from the beginning. The most advanced hair drying option at the time was an absorbent rag and a seat near the fire.
Eventually, the discovery of electricity and the spread of household appliances brought about a bit of a solution - in the early 20th century, inventive women would attach hoses to the 'blower' side of the vacuum cleaner and use it to blow dry their hair. It helped, but only a bit, and the air was cold and difficult to direct.

Early Stages

The earliest hair drying apparatus was invented by Alexandre Godefroy in 1890, and it was more akin to salon dryers than the handheld devices now used at home. A fabric bonnet was placed on the woman's head and attached to a chimney pipe.
The pipe was attached to a stove fitted with a hand crank-powered fan, which would direct the air down the fabric tube to dry the hair under the bonnet. The upside was that the air flow wasn't strong enough to move the hair, which meant that hair could be wet-set and dried in rollers.
The downside is that the air was coming directly from a gas stove, so it was pretty hot, and the temperature could not be controlled. Unlike modern blow dryers, which use the force of the air to physically blow the water droplets off the hair strands, and the heat of the air to speed water evaporation, this dryer relied upon heat evaporation alone.
This process took a long time, and frequently the woman would sweat under the bonnet, re-wetting the hair as it dried. It was not the most efficient solution.

Getting Better

The 1920s saw the first hair dryer as we recognize it today. It was handheld, electric, and shaped more or less like our modern versions. It was convenient, accessible, and much quicker than either the vacuum or the chimney pipe.
It wasn't super-quick though - it was only about 100 watts, compared to the 2000-watt dryers of today. It was also more than twice as heavy as today's models, weighing in at a hefty two pounds - made of metal and wood, it didn't exactly make hair drying a walk in the park.
It could also be dangerous - the motor was housed on the outside, so hair could get tangled in it, and the threat of electrocution was real. The motor found its way inside the unit by the 1950s, allowing the dryer to run quieter and a bit safer.
The design was streamlined and lightened slightly, making it easier to hold overhead for longer periods of time.

Modern Era

The hair dryer we know today really came about in the 1960s. Technology had improved to the point where the casings could be made from plastic, lightening the load even more, and the small motors had become efficient enough to produce about 500 watts.
This made the drying process easier and faster than ever before. Over the years, motor efficiency improved, insulating materials became lighter and new heating elements were developed, bringing us the hair drying experience we know today.
Our modern models produce around 2000 watts, use an instant-heating ceramic element, include 'cool shot' buttons for instant cold air, include 'ionic technology' modes that increase shine, and have a GFCI switch that has cut hair dryer electrocutions down to about four per year.
The next time you're frustrated that it takes a whole 10 minutes to blow dry your hair, think how lucky you are to live in an age where a seemingly simple process is no longer fraught with major discomfort or actual physical danger.