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%).

Developing stainless steel cutlery

Harry Brearley who developed stainless steel.

The reason that so many of us use stainless steel cutlery has a lot to do with Harry Brearley (1871-1948).

Before  stainless steel was introduced knives were normally made of carbon steel, while spoons and forks tended to be silver plated or, from the 1840s, made of electroplated nickel silver (EPNS).  Steel made better knives than silver  because it kept a sharp cutting edge but it had disadvantages.  It made some foods taste strange, which is why silver, or silver plated, knives were preferred for eating fish.  Also, steel rusts unless it is carefully cleaned and polished.

Harry was born in Sheffield.   His family was not wealthy and, at the age of 12, he started working in the same steelworks as his father.  He was later apprenticed as a laboratory assistant and, in 1895, when married Helen Theresa Crank he described himself as a metallurgical chemist.  His big discovery came in 1912.  While trying to find a way to stop gun barrels corroding Harry developed a alloy of chrome and steel.  He was not the first to realise that this kind of alloy did not rust but he recognised its commercial potential.  Harry argued with his employers about who owned the commercial rights to develop this “rustless steel”.  He claimed that he was entitled to at least half and the Frith Company disagreed.  He resigned in 1915 and went to work at Brown Bayley’s steelworks, also in Sheffield.

When stainless steel cutlery first appeared in the shops it was more expensive than silver plated cutlery.  By the 1950s it had become the norm doing away with the tedious job of polishing the knives and making fish knives redundant.