I had to write an article about dishwashers recently, and did a little digging into the invention. A woman named Josephine Cochran invented it, in 1886!
Our dishwasher is our favorite kitchen appliance. I have never owned one before I made room for it in our kitchen renovation in 2010. We LOVE our dishwasher! Before the dishwasher, we (either me or my daughter) were washing dishes two or more times per day; when I used to babysit and cooked and cleaned for 10 people, I was washing mounds of dishes THREE times a day. All I did was cook and wash dishes, ugh!). So I thank Mrs. Cochrane for her invention, from the bottom of my little heart.
Josephine Cochrane was a Chicago socialite, married to a merchant and politician, William Cochran. Josephine was independent-minded. She didn’t share her husband’s political views, she didn’t particularly like being an empty-headed socialite, and she even added an “e” to the end of her married name to give it a little inventive style. From the beginning, she thought “out of the box.” I’ll betcha the neighbor kids and gossiping biddies called her “scandalous” and “crazy.”
Well, the whole story starts out rather tamely. Josephine was distressed to find chips on her chinaware. The china had been in her family since the 17th century, and by golly, she was going to make it last ANOTHER 200 years. She discovered that the servants were terribly careless with the dishes while washing them, so she took over the job. She soon realized how horribly laborious washing dishes really was (especially in an era where they used a billion dishes for their four-course meals). Josephine pondered the idea of an automatic washing device– streams of hot water blasting dishes that were secured in racks. She developed a proto-type design, but her husband became ill and died, leaving her with large debts. Josephine was even more motivated to work now.
Working in her shed behind the house, Josephine measured the cups and dishes, and created racks to securely hold the china. The racks filled a copper boiler. Streams of water shot out from a wheel that was powered by a motor. The first “Cochrane Dishwasher” was invented.
Sales were slow at first. This was the era before water heater tanks and hot running water. She made the machines for her friends, advertised in local newspapers, and called her new business the Cochrane’s Crescent Washing Machine Company. Josephine’s invention got a big break when she featured her machine in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and won an award. Restaurants and hotels purchased her dishwashers, but few individual families could afford to run them. Josephine doggedly marketed her machine until 1913 when she died at the age of 74.
In the 1950’s, a new era of prosperity dawned for American families. Josephine’s invention got a second wind. Cochrane’s Crescent Washing Machine Company became Kitchen Aid (later to become part of Whirlpool, the world’s largest home appliance company). Improved dishwashing detergents were invented, and soon the dishwasher became as American as apple pie and Chevrolet.
Which leads me to… well, me. I am a proud owner of a dishwasher, now. I love that little thing. I may not have scads of precious china to preserve, but my time is very precious to me. I’d guess that my dishwasher saves me about 2 hours per day, and maybe saves us 6 gallons of water each load. Thank you, Josephine.
MIT; Inventor of the Week; Dishwashing Machine
University of Houston’s College of Engineering; Inventing the Dishwasher; John H. Lienhard
P.S. I wonder if any of her descendants still have any of that old china that Josephine worked so hard to preserve?