Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the first commercially successful dishwashing machine, was born in Shelbyville, Illinois in 1839. Her father was a civil engineer, and her great grandfather, John Fitch, was an inventor known for his steamboat-related innovations. Cochrane, thus, may have had creative tendencies in her family. However, she was not formally educated in the sciences.
Cochrane was a socialite. She and her husband, William, often entertained guests at their home. Accustomed to having servants do much of her housework for her, Cochrane did not set out to create the dishwasher to relieve her of the hard work of manually doing the dishes. Rather, the idea came to her when she grew frustrated that her fine china was chipping, mostly by the harsh handling it suffered by the servants as they scrubbed it in the sink. At first, Cochrane tried washing the dishes herself. But she found the task burdensome and thought to herself that there must be a better way.
She worked out a design, one that employed water jets and a dishrack that would hold the soiled tableware in place. Soon after she first began working on the design, her husband passed away, and she was left with debt. This tragedy gave Cochrane a push. She became driven in her desire to create a successful model of her machine. Though others had attempted to create similar devices—a hand-cranked model was patented, for example, in 1850—none had become commercially viable. She was determined that her machine could meet a real consumer need.
Working in a shed behind her home, Cochrane got to work. She measured the dishes and constructed wire compartments to fit plates, cups, and saucers, and placed these inside a wheel that laid flat within a copper boiler. The wheel turned, powered by a motor, and soapy water would squirt up over the dishes to clean them. In 1886, she patented her design and began making them for friends, calling the machine the “Cochrane Dishwasher.” She also advertised the machines in local newspapers. She established Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company, and soon restaurants and hotels became interested. In 1893, Cochrane presented her machine at the Chicago World’s Fair, where she won an award for its design and durability.
Initially, the machines sold well to businesses but not to individual consumers. Some homemakers admitted that they enjoyed washing dishes by hand, and the machines reportedly left a soapy residue on the dishes. They also demanded a great deal of hot water, and many homes did not have hot water heaters large enough to supply the machine sufficiently. The machines’ popularity skyrocketed in the 1950s, when technology, womens’ attitudes toward housework, and dishwashing detergent, changed in the dishwasher’s favor. Today, the dishwasher is a part of the typical American household.
Cochrane’s company eventually became KitchenAid, part of the Whirlpool Corporation. She died in 1913 at the age of 74.