A woman who invented a dishwasher


Josephine Cochrane. Image courtesy of Shelby County Historical Society.

Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913) was an American socialite who invented a dishwasher in 1886.  Her name is sometimes written Cochran but she added the “e” to make it sound better!

It wasn’t because she was fed-up of doing the washing-up, as a wealthy woman in the 19th century she had servants to do the work.  She was concerned that her fine china was getting bashed about and she wanted a machine that would clean the dishes carefully.   Josephine apparently said, “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.”

In fact dishwashers had already been invented, a number appear in patent books before the 1880s, but these early models didn’t perform very well.   In Josephine’s dishwasher the crockery was held in wire compartments set onto a wheel inside a copper boiler.  A motor turned the contraption while hot soapy water was sprayed onto the dishes.  You can see some blueprints of her design on the MIT inventor of the week website.

To start with she sold it as a domestic appliance but there were few takers.   She didn’t give up and, in 1893, her dishwasher won a prize at the Chicago World Fair.   A few years later Josephine opened her own factory with the mechanic who had helped make the prototype (George Butters).  Her company was bought by the Hobart Manufacturing Company and later became part of the Kitchen Aid Company.

It took a long time for dishwashers to catch on in British kitchens.  Early models were expensive and most people, especially those with servants, considered it better to wash by hand.   Today 40% of British households have a dishwasher, which according to a recent Business Week article , is a lot less than other countries including Spain (49%), France (52%), Germany (77%) and the USA ( 78%).

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