The Birth of the Dishwasher

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Thanks to Josephine Cochrane, most of us don't have to suffer through "dishpan hands."


What really is the mother of invention? When it comes to the invention of the dishwasher, necessity had nothing to do with it. It was chipped china.

Josephine Cochrane was a wealthy socialite from Shelbyville, Illinois. She gave a lot of dinner parties and was very proud of her china, which had been in the family since the 17th century. But her servants weren't particularly careful with the priceless china when they washed them after each party. Pieces were chipped; pieces were cracked; pieces were broken. Cochrane felt that the only way to protect her treasures was to wash them herself …but she hated the job.

Why should a rich 44-year-old woman be doing this menial job? Why wasn't there a machine that could wash the dishes for her? Well, there was -sort of. The first dishwasher was patented in 1850 by Joel Houghton. It was a wooden machine that splashed water on dishes when a hand-turned wheel was rotated. It didn't work very well, so Cochrane decided to invent a better one.


First, she set up a workshop in her woodshed. She measured her dishes and designed wire racks to hold them. She placed the racks inside a wheel, then laid the wheel inside a tub. The wheel turned while hot soapy water squirted up from the bottom of the tub, falling down on the dishes. Then clean hot water squirted up to rinse them. And finally, the dishes air-dried. It worked.

But while she was busy working on the dishwasher, her ailing husband died. Mrs. Cochrane was left with little money and a lot of debt. Now she needed to follow through on the invention not for convenience, but out of necessity. She needed to earn a living.

Cochrane patented her design in 1886. A Chicago machine firm manufactured them for her while she managed the company and marketed the product.

Although Cochrane's wealthy friends immediately ordered the "Cochrane Dishwasher" for their own kitchens, the home model did not sell well. Few homes had electricity in those days. Water heaters were rare. Most available water was hard and did not create suds well. And the price tag of $150 was huge -equivalent to about $4,500 today. Furthermore, many housewives felt that there was nothing wrong with washing dishes by hand -it was a relaxing way to end the day.

Cochrane tried changing her sales pitch to point out that the water in her dishwashing machines was hotter than human hands could stand, resulting in germ-free dishes. But it didn't matter: Her strongest potential market was not private homes, it was industry.


Cochrane got her big break when she exhibited her dishwasher at the World's Fair Columbian Expo of 1893 in Chicago. Against heavy competition from around the world, her dishwasher received first prize for "best mechanical construction for durability and adaptation to a particular line of work." And she sold dishwashers to many of the restaurants and other establishments catering to the large crowds at the Expo. Hotels, restaurants, boardinghouses, and hospitals immediately saw the advantages of being able to wash, scald, rinse, and dry dozens of dishes of all shapes and sizes in minutes. One of the concessionaires sent this glowing tribute: "Your machine washed without delay soiled dishes left by eight relays of a thousand soldiers each, completing each lot within thirty minutes."

Cochrane continued to improve her product, designing models with revolving washing systems, a centrifugal pump, and a hose for draining into the sink. She ignored the clergy ( who claimed the dishwasher was immoral because it denied women the labor to which God called them) and the servants (who claimed it would put them out of business). The company kept growing, pushed by Josephine Cochrane's energy and ambition until her death at age 74 in 1913. By the 1950s, the world finally caught up with Cochrane. Dishwashers became commonplace in ordinary homes …using the same design principles she had invented 70 years before.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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