This Socialite Hated Washing Dishes So Much that She Invented the Automated Dishwasher


Photo-illustration of Josephine Cochran and the patent for her dish washing machine.
Photo-illustration: IEEE Spectrum. Cochran: New York Public Library/Science Source

THE INSTITUTE The dishwasher, a popular appliance in kitchens around the world, has gone through a number of iterations throughout its 170-year history.

The first dishwasher to be granted a patent was invented in 1850 by Joel Houghton. It was a wooden box that used a hand-turned wheel to splash water on dirty dishes, and it had scrubbers. Ten years later, inventor L.A. Alexander improved on Houghton’s machine by adding a “geared mechanism that allowed the user to spin racked dishes through a tub of water,” according to an entry on reference website ThoughtCo.

But the person we have to thank for the modern-day dishwasher is Josephine Cochran (sometimes spelled Cochrane). Her machine was the first to use water pressure instead of scrubbers to clean dishes—which made it more efficient than Houghton’s or Alexander’s versions. For Cochran’s invention, she was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.

Her technical achievement is worthy of being named an IEEE Milestone, according to the IEEE History Center, but no one has proposed it yet. The Milestone program honors significant achievements in the history of electrical and electronics engineering.

FED UP WITH DIRTY DISHES

Cochran’s dishwashing woes began after she married wealthy merchant William Cochran in 1858. As a socialite, she was expected to hold frequent dinner parties. She served the meals on her expensive, heirloom china. When the household staff hand-washed the dishes, the delicate china often got chipped. She opted to wash the dishes herself, but after she damaged many a plate, she decided to design and build a machine that could handle the task—faster and more carefully.

According to a profile of Cochran on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, she vowed: “If nobody else is going to invent a [mechanical] dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.”

Although she had no technical background, she came from a family of engineers and inventors. Her father, John Garis, was a civil engineer who supervised a number of mills near the Ohio River in Illinois. Her great-grandfather John Fitch invented the first steamboat to be granted a U.S. patent.

She designed her first model in the shed behind her house in Shelbyville, Ill. Her lack of formal engineering education, however, became an obstacle, so she sought out someone who could help. Mechanic George Butters agreed to assist her in building the prototype.

To make the machine wash dishes efficiently, Cochran measured the width, height, and length of plates, cups, and saucers and constructed wire compartments for the china to sit in. The compartments separated each piece of dishware. At the bottom of the machine was a container that held soap. The compartments were placed inside a wheel that laid flat within a copper boiler, according to the Lemelson-MIT program’s profile of Cochran. A motor powered the wheel, which turned as soapy water was squirted on the dishes to clean them.

Cochran was granted a U.S. patent in 1886 for her machine, which she named the Cochran dishwasher. She advertised her invention in local newspapers and built the machines for friends and family.

COCHRAN MEANT BUSINESS

To expand the market for her machine, she founded Garis-Cochran Manufacturing in the early 1890s in Shelbyville. The business was renamed Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Co. in 1897. It helped her connect with not only restaurants and hotels interested in buying her dishwasher but also with investors.

Many potential investors asked Cochran to resign, however, so the company could be sold to a man, according to the Patent and Trademark Office article. She refused and continued to fund the business herself.

To increase sales, Cochran displayed her machine at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where she won an award for the machine’s design and durability. Thanks to that visibility, orders came pouring in and she was able to open a manufacturing facility near Chicago.

Her dishwashers became popular with the hospitality industry, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that dishwashers caught on with the public.

“Some homemakers admitted that they enjoyed washing dishes by hand, and the machines reportedly left a soapy residue on the dishes,” the Lemelson-MIT article says.

Many homes built before the 1950s used a furnace to heat water, and not all furnaces at the time could produce enough hot water to run a dishwasher.

Thanks to changing attitudes about technology and housework, though, the dishwasher’s popularity grew over time.

Cochran never saw her machines become sought-after household appliances. She died in 1913. In 1926 her company was acquired by KitchenAid, now a part of Whirlpool.

Any IEEE member can submit a milestone proposal to the IEEE History Center. The center is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation’s Realize the Full Potential of IEEE campaign.

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