Frances Gabe, inventor of the self-cleaning house, died at 101 on December 26, 2016. Other than a brief mention in her hometown Oregon newspaper The Newberg Graphic, Gabe’s passing went without national notice. Then in mid-July 2017—some seven months later—the New York Times ran an obituary and, suddenly, Gabe’s story was everywhere.
I knew about the self-cleaning house because it’s one of the examples we reference in Spark!Lab with our Now What? game.
The game challenges visitors to think about solving problems using limited resources. For example, you might spin the “Now” spinner on the game and be presented with the challenge “A puppy suddenly appears. You want to catch him but you only have…” A spin of the “What” wheel tells you that you have five cardboard tubes to solve the problem. Now what? How can you use those tubes to remove the puppy from your room? Visitors think creatively, either by themselves or in a group, and are encouraged to share and sketch their invention ideas.
(One of my all-time favorite Spark!Lab stories is about solving this exact Now What? challenge. A mom, dad, and son were working together, and the grown-ups were having a tough time coming up with a solution. Their son, however, was not: “You just tape the tubes together, lure the puppy into the tube, and he walks through them and out of the room.” When mom and dad looked quizzically, their young son—exasperated—said, “The tubes are GIANT!” and showed with his arms how big around the tubes were. A great example of how young people use their imaginations and think creatively in ways that adults often don’t.)
To provide real world context for the Now What? game, we profile several inventors who have solved different kinds of challenges. We show Frank Epperson who invented the popsicle after a drink he left outside overnight froze, and Gauri Nanda who invented Clocky®, an alarm clock that encourages people to get out of bed instead of hitting snooze.
One of the other inventors we highlight is Frances Gabe. Our story about Gabe begins, “You don’t have time to clean your house. Now what?” Naturally, this is a favorite story among visitors, young and old alike (who likes to clean?), and her quote about housecleaning as a “thankless, unending job, a nerve-twangling bore” is instantly relatable. But something I learned about Gabe after her death is that she thought of the self-cleaning house not just as a solution to her own challenges but also for others’. A 1982 article in People magazine quoted Gabe as saying “I want to eliminate all unnecessary motion so that handicapped and elderly people can care for their homes themselves. My system will allow people to do so by pushing a few buttons.” That same article highlighted Gabe’s desire to free women from spending so much time cleaning: “We should be better mothers, wives, neighbors, and spend time improving ourselves instead of saying, ‘I’m sorry, I have to clean the kitchen.’”
Gabe received a patent in 1984 for a “self-cleaning building construction.” The patent describes the invention as “apparatus for applying a fine spray or mist of water and/or water and detergent to wall, floor and ceiling surfaces, followed by warm air drying. Floors slope in a direction for removing excess moisture via a drain.” Gabe’s patent actually included 68 different devices that made up the self-cleaning house, all of which she designed to save time, energy, and space in her Newberg, Oregon home.
In 2003, author Chuck Palahniuk profiled Gabe and her invention in his book Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon. Palahniuk describes the house:
“To clean the house, you just turn on the water to a spinning spray head in the center of each room’s ceiling. You add soap through a stint in the plumbing. The wash and rinse water run down the sloped floor and out through the fireplace. You turn on the heat and blower to dry everything. In the kitchen, open work shelves allow all the water to drain to the floor. A hatch in the wall channels trash down a chute to the garbage can. Clothes are washed and dried as they hang on hangers hooked to a chain that pulls them through each process in a three-part cabinet. The first part is a washing closet, the middle third is a dryer, the last third is the storage closet where the clothes wait, ready to wear."*
Perhaps the best view into Gabe’s home, though, is a 1990 video of the inventor herself walking through it with reporter Carl Click. She describes its different elements and demonstrates how the cleaning devices in her kitchen work (or are supposed to work; there’s a slight malfunction of a pipe fitting, though she easily fixes it).
Gabe worked on the self-cleaning house for more than 20 years, continually inventing, sketching, testing, and tweaking its myriad devices. Several years ago, she sold her home and moved into an assisted living facility. Its new owner removed all of the cleaning devices, though a model that Gabe built of her home still exists and is preserved at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. I’d like to think that a young inventor might see the model and become inspired to pick up where Gabe left off. Not only would it be a wonderful tribute to the inventor, it might also mean that someday I’ll able to turn a knob or flip and switch and—voila!—my house will be clean. A girl can dream, right?
* Chuck Palahniuk. Fugitives & Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon. New York: Crown Journeys, 2003: 30.