Who Invented the Dishwasher?

I’m working on my new kitchen lately, trying to decide what to put in it, and where to cut to save money. This led me to look into dishwashers. Living alone, I’m not sure I need one, but it may be useful one day. So, I quickly learned that the technology behind the dishwasher didn’t really change since its invention. But…

Who Created the Dishwasher?

Of course, when I’m talking about “dishwasher,” I’m not referencing the worker employed to wash dishes. As the dictionary puts it, a dishwasher is a machine for washing dishes—not sure that there was someone in particular who invented the idea of having someone do the dishes.

You may not know this, but there are two types of dishwashers. The first was the hand-cranked dishwasher. It basically was a wooden box in which you put the dirty dishes. Using a hand-turned wheel, you splashed water on what was inside. It was invented by a man named Joel Houghton who patented his creation in 1850.

It was not reliable, fast, or even particularly effective. In 1865, L. A. Alexander tried to improve it by adding a gear to spin a rack of dishes through the dishwater. Not really efficient either.

The hand-cranked dishwasher never became a popular appliance. The second type of dishwasher, the automatic dishwasher, took its time but became quite successful.

The Invention of the Automatic Dishwasher

As the story goes, Josephine Cochran—later Cochrane—was the wife of a prosperous merchant and politician in Shelbyville, Illinois, where she organized dinner parties in their mansion. After one of them, one of her precious plates was damaged during the washing. It was one too many for her. And as nobody invented a better way to wash the dishes, she decided to do it herself.

Cochran came from a family of engineers and inventors. Her great-grandfather was John Fitch, the man who obtained the U.S. patent for the first steamboat! And her father was a civil engineer. That said, she herself didn’t have the engineering knowledge necessary to give life to her idea.

She developed the plans, measured the plates, and thought of all the compartments needed to keep them up and intact, but also the way to put the soap in and to distribute the water. Nevertheless, she needed some help to build her first prototype. She recruited a mechanic named George Butters who later became her first employee in her business.

Stamps of Romania, 2013. Josephine Cochrane

It worked and Josephine Cochran submit her invention to the Patent and Trademark Office and was granted a patent in 1886 for what she called the Cochran Dishwasher. She started slowly to build more machines and founded Garis-Cochran Manufacturing. Apparently, some men wanted her to give control of the company to a man, but she refused.

The difficulty to sell the dishwasher was mainly the lack of hot water in the households at that time. After winning an award for her machine at The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the first world’s fair held in Chicago, Cochran finally found an opening in the hospitality industry—hotels and restaurants had hot water and a real need for dishwashers.

The dishwasher really took off in the 1950s when homes started to be built with furnaces to heat water. By that time, Josephine Cochran was already dead—in 1913, apparently of a stroke. In 1926 her company was acquired by KitchenAid, and later became a part of Whirlpool.

You needed hot water for your dishwasher, but electricity helped too! Read about who discovered electricity. Also, I wrote about the invention of the washing machine!

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