“When I get through with this baby, it’s really gonna work”

Released June 6, 2018

WALTER CRONKITE: No one knows where the search for the home of 2001 will ultimately end...

JULIA: We’ve always been a little obsessed with the home of the future.

CRONKITE: We may wake up every morning to the patter of little feet. Robot feet.
SCIENTIST: These are the first prototypes of small scale models of the domestic housemaid of the future...designed to do all the things the housewife would prefer not to do.

JULIA: This idea -- to get rid of housework -- wasn’t new. There’s just something about the non-stop sweeping, mopping, dusting, and laundry that can drive a person crazy.

ALICE (THE HONEYMOONERS): ...then when I came back I was still in such a silly mood that I thought why should I settle down to the drudgery of mending your socks...so I scrubbed the kitchen floor. Then you know something? I was still so giddy and so gay over this whole thing that I thought I’d really enjoy myself so I washed the windows...

JULIA: It’s a classic sitcom set up: the husband and wife bickering over cleaning.

RICKY (I LOVE LUCY): You know the only reason women claim that housework is so hard is that they don’t use their heads.

JULIA: But some of our shows and movies took place in a future that had moved beyond housework.

THE JETSONS THEME SONG: Meet George Jetson...

JULIA: The Jetsons offered a vision of the future where every task would be taken care of by...technology.

JANE JETSON: Oh I shouldn’t have upset George, but if he only knew how I hated washing, ironing, vacuuming.

JULIA: Jane Jetson doesn’t have to worry for long. Her robot maid whizzes into action, happily cleaning the house, so that Jane can go shopping. And 3 decades later the Disney Channel original movie, Smart House, offered yet another take on the scifi self-cleaning fantasy.

HOUSE: Floor absorbers activated
BOY: Wow, where did it go?
REALTOR: Where all smart house spills go -- straight into Pat’s floor absorbers.
DAD: I could definitely get used to this.
BOY: I think I already have.

JULIA: We’ve been dreaming the same dream for so long. But in all that time, our housework has, pretty much, stayed the same. There is one exception. A woman in a small town called Newberg, Oregon. Her name was Frances GABe, and she built a house that cleaned itself.

JULIA: This is Design Can Save The World. I’m Julia Drachman.

FRANCES: Half of Newberg thought I was nuts and the other half thought I was a genius.

JULIA: This is Frances GABe. In this clip she’s in her 80s. She’s giving a TV reporter the grand tour of her house.

FRANCES: I want mine to be completed when I put it on the market.
REPORTER: That’s why it takes some time?
FRANCES: Yes, when I get through with this baby it’s really gonna work.

JULIA: Frances spent much of her life building, maintaining, and publicizing a prototype for a house that would wash away dirt and dust with the push of a button or the turn of a nob. And -- surprisingly -- it worked.

FRANCES: Eureka!

JULIA: The house looked like a rube goldberg machine with tubes and pipes all over the place, and it drew in a slow trickle of visitors. They would pay an entry fee to see the Self Cleaning House. My favorite part in this clip is when she’s demonstrating  how her patented laundry machine makes it easier to pick up your clothes.

FRANCES: Stoop, stoop, stooping is stupid.

JULIA: She’s just grinning at the reporter like she’s been waiting for the perfect moment to drop that line. Eventually, Frances’ patent on the house lapsed and the flow of visitors began to slow down. She moved into a nursing home and the property was sold. In 2016, at the age of 101, Frances GABe passed away quietly in Newberg.

I learned about Frances from a New York Times obituary for her. In it, Margalit Fox describes how Frances got an oddball reputation with her neighbors. She kept a cement mixer in her yard. She always had a Great Dane. She did her gardening in the nude.

Thanks to those details, the obituary went viral. And all the new attention made the same point: her invention was a commercial failure, but Frances was remarkable.

FRANCES: I am often asked why I invented the Self-Cleaning House, what it was that got me started doing it in the first place, and why I felt it was important enough for me to be willing to spend 27 years of my life doing it. These questions always amaze me because to me the answers are obvious -- there had to be a better way.

JULIA: This is from an essay by Frances, read by an actress. Since she didn’t leave a lot of footage behind, her writing gives us a little window into who she was.

FRANCES: Necessary as it is to civilized living to have clean surroundings, if there is a family whose members have ever appreciated their mother’s efforts enough to have so much as told her, “thank you,” I’ve never met them.

JULIA: Like many women of her generation, Frances GABe was a mother and a housewife. But she also ran a successful home repair company when her kids were little.

FRANCES: I remember with bitterness the years that my children were growing up. I never had a quarter enough personal time for them.

JULIA: She worked all day, and then she would come home and moonlight as a maid to her family. She felt unappreciated. But more than that, she felt robbed by the time she spent cleaning rather than…mothering.

FRANCES: Try however hard I might, I did not enjoy my children; I didn't have time.

JULIA: We like to focus on how much things have changed since Frances GABe was a young mother. But according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, women still do two thirds of all housework.

FRANCES: Men decided a few centuries ago that any job they found repulsive was women’s work. They didn’t want to clean up someone else’s dirt either, and who can blame them? How clever it was of them to find a way to make someone else do it instead. But in all fairness, why me instead of you?

JULIA: And then - the most-quoted Frances-ism in the book:

FRANCES: Household work is a thankless, unending job -- a nerve-twanging bore. Who wants it? Nobody. With my jaw set hard I was determined that there had to be a better way! Someway, somewhere, I would find it.

JULIA: She was confident that her invention would mean the dawn of a new age: a domestic paradise where houses cleaned themselves and women won back their lives. At this point, you’re probably wondering: how did it work?

Imagine a big shower, with sprinklers on the ceiling and drains on the floor. With the press of a button, the sprinklers would click on and spray suds everywhere, then wash them away with water. Warm air blew everything dry. In less than an hour, the housework was done.

If you just applied this method to your house right now, it would be a disaster. But everything in the Self-Cleaning House was designed for this system. Frances used water-resistant materials, marine-grade varnish, and water-proof cases.

But, it wasn’t without its kinks. Frances was always fixing little bugs in the prototype. As soon as a problem came up, she invented a solution. At one point, Frances held 68 patents that each had a part in the overall system.

FRANCES: ...the SCH Plumbing Fixtures consist of a self-cleaning wash basin, shower, a self-cleaning therapeutic bathtub, and a waterless, organic… the GABe bathtub is never cold because its base is made in such a way that it serves as a furnace outlet for the...the SCH spot cleaner is for cleaning spills or small areas that need really heavy cleaning...books can be left anywhere as long as GABe shields are used… self-cleaning fireplace...the GABe bed...the GABe clothes freshener...unique no-bother tops that seal themselves from moisture as soon as the device is activated...

JULIA: It all worked together. By the time the cleaning process ended, all of Frances’s things were safely dry and squeaky clean. Frances wasn’t waiting for the technology to become available -- she built with what she had, like cinder blocks and PVC pipes. Each update was designed to dial the system in a little more, adjusting the water pressure or the plumbing, getting closer and closer to the vision in her head.

She believed in it, and she built it: for herself, and for millions of housewives just like her.

JUDY WAJCMAN: It's clearly designed for a particular purpose and with love and attention. I mean, it's sort of craft, if anything, isn't it?

JULIA: This is Judy Wajcman, a professor of Science and Technology Studies at London School of Economics. She’s written books called “Feminism Confronts Technology” and “TechnoFeminism.” And she is a huge fan of the Self-Cleaning House.

JUDY: I just thought that house was wonderful as a, as a sort of idealized, utopian example -- and it had to be a woman -- actually thinking about well okay with quite simple technology, we could actually automate a lot of this work. I just thought it was kind of completely wonderful.

JULIA: She uses Frances’s story to show how the fields of science and technology suffer from being traditionally dominated by men.

JUDY: How come we get men to the moon, but we can't have a self cleaning house.

JULIA: Professor Wajcman is all for putting men -- and women -- on the moon. But she says that advances in technology reflect what a society values. And housework still looks pretty much like it did in I Love Lucy. In fact, I could only think of one thing that would surprise Lucille Ball...

DJ ROOMBA (PARKS & REC): What is that? Oh I strapped an mp3 player to one of those floor cleaning robots. I call it DJ Roomba. Hit it, DJ Roomba!” *Music* Tear it up!

JULIA: The Roomba. People went nuts for the Roomba: a little vacuum cleaner that rolls around your house on its own. I asked Professor Wajcman about it and… I was really surprised by what she said:

JUDY: It is literally a commercial application of a military technology right? If you have a look at the website, it is actually a military company that makes it.

JULIA: It turns out that the technology behind the Roomba was originally designed to find mines in war zones. Just like GPS, duct tape and microwaves, the Roomba was invented for combat and then spun off into American homes.

JUDY: I mean, I'm not saying they're not wonderful things, but actually, I can't see how it isn't a valid argument to say: if we designed specifically to solve problems we wanted to solve, that we might design better.

JULIA: So the Roomba wasn’t the brainchild of some engineer who thought: hey, let’s tackle the nerve-twanging bore that is vacuuming. It was just a clever coincidence that the Roomba as we know it came to be. The Self-Cleaning House, on the other hand, was built by a woman to change housework for women.

JUDY: To put it very simply, I do think that we should think about the problem we want to solve first, and then think about the technology that's appropriate to that. Whereas we’re getting more and more apps and technologies looking for a project. Not starting from some concrete practical personal project, which is sort of what design is.

JULIA: For Professor Wajcman, it’s all about who does the design work.

JUDY: Design is very narrowly conceived. Engineers and architects and computer scientists are still predominantly from a very narrow sector of society and they design things from their own experience, because that's what we all do.

JULIA: The jobs that are responsible for creating products, apps, houses -- even cities -- are filled with white people and men. According to the Department of Labor, software developers are 59% white and 81% male. In architecture and engineering, it’s even more dramatic: 79% white, 84% male.

JUDY: In a patriarchal society or, you know, if you want to say it more gently, in a society characterized by unequal gender divisions still, yes, as we nicely say, you know, that actually it's not surprising that the kind of technology we get will reflect that.

JULIA: We think about innovation as some inevitable step.But really, it’s a choice. It reflects our culture. We make the advancements that we think are important. And maybe one day, we’ll decide that Frances GABe was right -- that it’s worth sparing women the housework.

Here’s the thing: Frances spent her life working on a house that would clean itself, just so that she didn’t have to spend her whole life cleaning that house. And it wasn’t even much of a success. She made it so it could be replicated cheaply, over and over again. But as far as we know, her prototype was the only one ever made. Most people didn’t like all those plastic surroundings. And I get that. Everything in waterproof containers -- it’s not my thing. But Frances wasn’t wasting her time. She was giving us ideas.

LILY BENSON: I just thought when I grew up, I would eventually live in a self-cleaning house. Like, since I heard about it as a kid, it just seemed like this promise for the future that I was always waiting for.

JULIA: This is Lily Benson. As a kid who never wanted to clean, Frances GABe was her hero. Back in 2007, she went on a tour of the house and met Frances.

LILY: When we got out of the car, here was this overgrown front yard with a sign that said “please don’t trample the poison oak or feed the bull. so it wasn't the most welcoming place.

JULIA: She had been expecting to find some kind of museum, but instead, she found a little old woman living in a little old house.

LILY: Frances came and greeted us and she was much older than I expected and she was in a wheelchair that she had made herself. The whole sense of that visit was that her mind was really full of imagination and really great ideas, but her reality was pretty sad and a bit, like isolated.

JULIA: And the house wasn’t actually all that clean. All of the systems that kept the house clean had suffered earthquake damage and at that point, Frances was too old to fix them.

LILY: You would assume it would be the cleanest house you've ever walked into, like imagine this beautiful glowing white orb, some kind of like simple shiny white surfaces everywhere. But instead it was like super cluttered, full of a lot of relics from when the house was getting attention.

JULIA: So the visit wasn’t what Lily expected, but it didn’t really seem to faze her.

LILY: I was really kind of heartbreaking but at the same time, I was kind of inspired by her  -- she didn't care that there were these worldly restrictions or it wasn't actually working, she just seemed so continuously hopeful. It was so clear that she just really had a vision where everyone would eventually live like this.

JULIA: And Lily believed in that vision. She still does. She describes Frances GABe as a brilliant inventor, ahead of her time, and ignored by a sexist society. Lily wanted to set the record straight. A few years after her visit, she made an experimental film about the Self-Cleaning House.

VIDEO: The sky is gray and still. We are in Newburg, Oregon.

JULIA: She knew that a traditional documentary with footage of a house in disrepair would never capture what she loved about it. And so, in a Frances-GAB-ian move, she tried to get at it in a new medium: 3-D animation.

VIDEO: Inhale slowly and gently as you start to consider a miraculous notion. Liberation for womankind may lie just beyond this gate.

JULIA: The camera guides you through animated blades of grass, revealing a small cinder block house. The door is open and the space beyond it glows white as you move toward it.

VIDEO: We will now enter the prototype for US Patent Number 4428085. The self-cleaning house. The house that cleans itself.

LILY: I realized basically that, how it could work is that, instead of visiting the real house, you could kind of visit the one that's in your mind, or the idealized form of it instead, which I think is a more productive space than going to the sad reality of it.

JULIA: Even now, Lily believes that the Self-Cleaning House could be the future.

LILY: I have pretty extreme allergies to pets and dust and things like that. And, if you just look at the sort of statistics of how many more people are developing allergies in our country because of how we're treating the environment, I actually think this is a pretty good solution and probably a way we might have to live pretty soon in the future.

JULIA: While people like me might want to have a house full of rugs and drapes and cozy furniture, Lily would gladly trade all of that for a house that she doesn’t have to keep clean.

LILY: For me it would be like a dream house. There's no dust anywhere.

JULIA: It feels right that Frances GABe’s invention lives on in this little movie. It doesn’t seem like Frances was ever worried about the product in front of her. It was always about the vision in her head.

VIDEO: Our tour is now complete. Let's step outside. Farewell, Frances.

JULIA: Design Can Save the World is produced by me, Julia Drachman, and Ula Kulpa.

ULA: Ryan Sweikert helped mix this episode. Our theme music is by Phoenix Glendinning with additional tracks from Blue Dot Sessions. Our artwork is by Will Stack.

JULIA: Special thanks to the people you heard from, and some you didn't: Ann Roman, Judy Wajcman, Lily Benson, Margalit Fox, Debrah Hughes, and our hero, Frances GABe. And thanks to Andy Clark and Blake Gallagher for letting me use their recording studio.

ULA: You can find us on the Internet at dcstwpod.com, or @dcstwpod on Twitter and Instagram. That's D-C-S-T-W-Pod.