Most of us rarely stop to think about the history of mundane things, such as our household items and appliances. The dishwasher didn’t become commonplace in homes until the latter part of the 20th century. However, the dishwasher has a history dating back more than 150 years. What’s more, unlike many objects in your home, it was invented by a woman – Josephine Cochran.
The first dishwasher of any kind was invented by Joel Houghton in 1850. His device was nothing more than a wooden tub with a hand crack. It wetted the dishes but did not clean them.
Houghton’s dishwasher was improved by L. A. Alexander who created a device that allowed a person to spin dishes in a tub of water. Alexander’s device didn’t clean very well either.
This is when Josephine Cochran entered the scene. She hadn’t set out to perfect the dishwasher, but instead had the intention of protecting her fine china from being accidently chipped by her servants.
“If nobody else is going to invent a dish washing machine, I’ll do it myself,” she reportedly said in 1886, the year her dishwasher was patented.
Working out of a shed behind her home, Cochran and an assistant devised a machine that cleaned dishes using water pressure. It consisted of wire-framed compartments for the dishes and a wooden wheel inside a copper boiler. As the dishes spun, they were cleaned by hot, soapy water.
In the earlier models, it was operated via hand crank and dishes were rinsed with a bucket of water. Later models were machine powered and rinsing was automatic.
Cochran’s dishwasher made its debut at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. It won an award for design and durability.
The device was a success with restaurants and hotels as well as Cochrane’s friends. This success prompted her to start her own company, the Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Co. Today, the company founded by Cochran is KitchenAid.
The first dishwashers did have problems: They were too expensive for the average household, used more water than hot water heaters at the time could handle and left a soapy residue.
In the early 1920s, dishwashers took on their modern appearance and were attached to indoor plumbing It wasn’t until the 1940s, however, that dishwashers also dried the dishes.
The Life of Josephine Cochran
Cochran’s grandfather also was an inventor, holding a steamboat patent. Born Josephine Garis, she married grocer William Cochran on Oct. 13, 1858, and they had two children, one of whom died in infancy.
Cochran and her husband were wealthy, but when he died in 1883, she was left with debt. This pushed her to create a commercially successful product.
“I couldn’t get men to do the things I wanted in my way until they had tried and failed in their own,” she said. “And that was costly for me. They knew I knew nothing, academically, about mechanics, and they insisted on having their own way with my invention until they convinced themselves my way was the better, no matter how I had arrived at it.”
The hardest thing she did was visit Chicago’s Sherman House hotel on a cold call.
“You cannot imagine what it was like in those days,” she said, “for a woman to cross a hotel lobby alone. I had never been anywhere without my husband or father —the lobby seemed a mile wide. I thought I should faint at every step, but I didn’t — and I got an $800 order as my reward.”
Cochran died in 1913 at the age of 74.
Updated: 27 October 2020
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