Roanoke Governor’s School Student Knows Your Dirty Laundry

Jack Whitehead with “The Washamacallit.”

How many times over the years have you wondered if the washer was done? On vacation, in the college dorm, at the local laundromat, or even in your own home? Now imagine a reusable, compact device that you could throw in the machine with your dirty laundry that would let you know the moment your clothes were clean. Would you buy it?

At the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology, students are charged each year with carrying out a science fair project. This year, Patrick Henry High School senior Jack Whitehead elected to work in the Product Design and Engineering field on a project titled, “The Washamacallit: A Device to Text You When Your Laundry is Clean.” The project won second place at the Governor’s School’s Project Forum, first place at the Roanoke City Science Fair, and will compete next at the Western Virginia regional fair in March.

“I like to focus on something practical for my science fair projects,” said Jack, “something that I would enjoy using and that people could buy to make their lives easier. Lately I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my laundry in the washer and forgetting about it, so I decided to build something that would remember it for me. Everyone uses their cell phones now to make everyday tasks simpler, and I always have my phone with me, so a text message works great.”

It sounds simple, but like most projects at the Governor’s School, Jack’s was complicated. First he created the device itself: a watertight PVC capsule with a screw-on cap that holds a standard 9V battery, a lithium-ion polymer battery, an accelerometer to detect motion, a GSM sensor to send text messages, a SIM card to allow for text messaging over a wireless network, and a Quad-Band Antenna to boost the connection. Next he wrote and perfected the code he used to program an Arduino UNO board to control the device, and then he developed a way to activate the code once the device is in the washing machine.

Here’s how it works: “The code is activated when the user texts the GSM sensor a message,” said Jack. “The sensor stores the user’s phone number, and then the accelerometer begins to measure movement in the form of inertial measurement units. Once the accelerometer detects little to no motion for a certain amount of time, it sends a text back to the user letting him or her know that the laundry cycle is complete.”

Since the sensor only stores the user’s phone number until the device texts back the All Clean message, multiple users could use the same device, and the text message system would be a terrific way to avoid mildewed clothes for those of us whose memories aren’t what they used to be.

Jack’s still experimenting, but so far his device works just as he designed it to without damage to the device, the washing machine, or the clothes. His trials have all been in his family’s old top-loader, but his product would theoretically be able to work in any machine without modification of any kind.

He’d like to try the device out in the dryer, too, but his mom’s “You’re not putting that whatchamacallit in my new dryer!” nixed that. But at least it gave him a clever name for his invention: The Washamacallit.

Jack Whitehead is just one of the 264 gifted and talented young scientists who attend Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology. To learn more about the Governor’s School, a half-day regional public STEM school for motivated students in grades nine through twelve, please visit the school’s website at contact the school’s director, Mark Levy, or the school’s guidance counselor, Kathy Sebolt, at 540.853.2116.

-Regina Carson