Thursday, 4 April 2013

Whistles and bleeps

The whistle could be one of the greater inventions for domestic energy saving. Apparently it was invented after the first world war by Sholom Borgelman, owner of a sheet metal works in London. It's one of those inventions that is so small and obvious that we forget it was ever invented, and details are difficult to come by. You get into one of those circular searches on the internet, where the same little bit of information has been cut and pasted from site to site so many times that it's difficult to see where it came from. Also, most of the hits refer directly or indirectly to items for sale, reminding you that the internet is not so much a font of information as a large shopping arcade. 

Sholom Borgelman is a great name, but apparently he changed it to Borman. It's difficult to find any other information about him. There are no other references to him or his sheet metal works on the internet except single sentences talking about his whistling kettle invention. He doesn't even feature on Wikipedia. has no Borgelmans living in the US or UK. It looks like his son Barney Borman was a communist councillor in East London, so perhaps the whole family's history was swept away, leaving only a kettle whistle rattling on the floor. 

The steam whistle had been around since the 1850s, although applying the same principle to a kettle only seems obvious to us after the event. The whistle itself is ancient, going back to China like most other inventions that we don't associate with a dead white male, and a few that we do. Wikipedia tells us that Joseph Hudson of Birmingham, England, made the first whistle to be used by a football referee in 1868 and William Atack, a New Zealander, was the world's first referee to use a whistle to stop a game of sport in 1884.

So anyway, for the past year, I've been thinking about getting a kettle with a whistle. This would save  electricity. It's been estimated that 4% of UK domestic carbon emissions come from the kettle, and as another tea-loving nation, Japan no doubt is similar

The beauty of a whistle is that it tells you when to switch off the heat. Running in the kilowatts, ten seconds of extra kettle boiling equates to an hour leaving one of our low-energy LEDs on. The electric kettle goes one step further by switching the heat off for you when the desired temperature is reached. Seth Stevenson pays homage to the electric kettle here

Hot water dispensing Thermos flasks are common in Japan, many that can be plugged in to keep the water at the desired temperature. I'm ambivalent towards these as the savings made by stopping the heat as soon as the water boils are probably squandered in the energy used to keep the water hot for hours afterwards. So for the past year we've been using our stove-top kettle, still quite impressed that the handle doesn't get hot.

Then, when I put the kettle on this morning, I found a function on our IH hob. I knew there was a tempura setting, which keeps the chip-pan at 180 degrees. This morning I found a kettle in the menu, with choices of 0.5 litres up to 2 litres. It beeps a few times when the water has boiled, and switches itself off, so we have the best of an electric kettle and a whistle. 

The key point to energy saving is to just boil the amount of water you need, and of course the steel kettle doesn't tell us how much water is in it, and the fact that we have to choose a setting for the amount of water means that it's probably working on a timer rather than a thermostat to decide when the water is ready. Further investigation is necessary. We should probably put in different amounts of water depending on whether we want a rolling boil for proper tea, or water at slightly lower temperature for green tea. It will take time to change the ritualistic behaviour of kettle boiling, but it's time to make new rituals for a new world; to raise awareness of exactly how much water should go into the kettle and then bury it in our subconscious.