The domestic hair dryer was invented in the 1920s and relied upon a mechanism through which hot air was produced by heating a wire element which could be directed by a fan. Due to their use of heavy materials and industrial design, domestic hair dryers failed to gain in popularity until the post-war period. The hair dryer used for this ‘autopsy’ was a 1936 design by the Ormond Electrical Engineering Company, who also manufactured radios. The hair dryer was produced in Clerkenwell, London and the design survived until 1962. This particular design was featured in Which magazine’s first assessment of the domestic appliance.
The hair dryer could be purchased in cream or brown imitation walnut (made from urea/phenol plastics) and came housed in a Bakelite vanity case with a comb and mirror. The element would be formed from chromium and nickel wire, wrapped around a mika or asbestos board.
I have been unable to trace the materials used in this model of Ormond hair dryer but reports suggest that in any model of hair dryer pre-dating 1980, asbestos was likely to have been used (needless to say safety precautions were taken when handling the autopsied object).
A Ghost of the Past
Hair dryers are not in the conventional sense ‘dead.’ They continue to sell today in designs similar to, or even replicating those from the 1930s. When I purchased this particular hair dryer, I was told that it was still in working condition; had I plugged it in, it would have switched on.
It is not the hair dryer which is dead but the materials which form the components inside it. An appliance which may blow chrysotile—or white asbestos—particles into the air is a dangerous and potentially deadly object.[i]
Asbestos was banned from import and use in the UK on August 24, 1999, in line with EU regulations. In a case not entirely dissimilar from that of the use of lead (explored by the Autopsies group below), industry lobbyists were keen to disassociate the cause and effects of asbestos inhalation. The British Asbestos Newsletter described how ‘The Asbestos Institute (AI), a Canadian body set up in 1984 to "maximise the use of existing resources in a concerted effort to defend and promote the safe use of asbestos on a global scale," went on red alert’ when French investigations began to expose the risks of exposure to the material.[ii]
The health risks posed by asbestos had long been a political policy issue and cause for debate: it is reported that on coming to power as prime minister ‘Blair expressed his determination to "deal effectively with the problems of asbestos."’[iii]
Investigations into the inhalation of asbestos particles preceded this by nearly a century according to journalist Geoffrey Lean. He refers to Montague Murray, a doctor at a Charing Cross hospital, as treating patients with asbestosis in 1899.[iv]
Lean also states that an estimated 3,000 people continued to die from exposure to asbestos in 1999, a figure which rivalled the 3,400 deaths occurring through road traffic accidents.[v] Asbestos found in cladding, insulation, cement, toasters and working hair dryers could still be accounting for deaths today and most certainly renders the working object obsolete.
[i] Richmond Borough Council. ‘Asbestos Guide.’
[ii] British Asbestos Newsletter issue 39.
[iii] Laurie Kazan-Allen. ‘Asbestos Finally Banned in the United Kingdom.’
[iv] Geoffrey Lean. ‘Asbestos Deaths to Soar Despite Ban.’ In The Independent. December 12, 1999.
[v] Geoffrey Lean. ‘Asbestos Deaths to Soar Despite Ban.’ In The Independent. December 12, 1999.