Blast from the Past: Meet Josephine Cochrane, Inventor of the Modern Dishwasher

Turning a tedious task into an iconic American appliance

By Andy Kriege, YSN

Josephine Garis was born into a working-class family. But in 1858 at the age of 19, she married a wealthy, 27-year-old merchant named William Cochrane, who made his mark and fortune in dry goods, along with other investment opportunities. They settled in the Chicago area.

By the 1870s the prosperous couple had a busy social life that included hosting dinner parties using heirloom china that dated back to the 1600s.  It was one such gala that touched off her epic journey of discovery and invention. Josephine was furious to find that her staff had chipped some of her priceless dishes; so mad, in fact, she refused to let anyone handle her china again.

The Mother of Invention: Dishpan Hands
After scrubbing (and presumably chipping) more dishes than she cared to handle, Josephine had an epiphany. “If nobody is going to invent a [mechanical] dishwashing machine, I am going to do it myself,” she said, as quoted in her U.S. Patent Office profile.

Consumed with the concept, she headed to a library to work out a solution, and a half hour later penciled out the basic design. Her mechanical dishwasher would hold dinner plates separately and securely along a rack within an enclosed chamber while the pressure of sprayed water would cleanse them. (Sound familiar?)

Cochrane’s creation had wire compartments for plates, cups and saucers. They were placed inside a wheel that lay flat inside a copper boiler. A motor turned the wheel, pumping hot, soapy water from the bottom of the boiler over the dishes.  After running her invention past several skeptical engineers, she finally received construction assistance from mechanic George Butters and assembled a prototype in a backyard shed.

Similar designs from that time included a hand-cranked mechanism that moved a rack through water, but it didn’t clean well. Cochrane’s key improvement was to employ two powerful pumps, driven by electric motors, to spray the soap and water. The pumps were placed in two separate sections, with one with dispensing soap for washing and the other spewing hot water for rinsing — very similar to today’s machines.

Alas, the high life came to an abrupt halt for Josephine when William died in 1883, leaving her with mounds of dept and limited funds. Now, developing her dishwasher idea was not just a convenience or a passing fancy; it was vital to her survival.

Josephine promptly filed for and received her first patent in December 1886. Shortly thereafter, the Garis-Cochrane Manufacturing Co. was founded to produce her invention.

Commercial Users Only
Cochrane’s first customers were not the housewives she thought she’d be helping. Homemakers lacked the income to buy these enormous machines, nor any interest in a product they deemed unnecessary. What’s more, few households had hot, running water at the time, which was a requirement for the device.

Instead, Josephine turned to hotels. As she later recalled, making a solo cold call proved to be one of the hardest things she’d ever have to do. The first sales call was at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago.

“If you asked me what the hardest part of getting into business was … I think it was crossing the great lobby of the Sherman House alone,” she later told reporters. “You cannot imagine what it was like in those days … for a woman to cross a hotel lobby alone. I had never been anywhere without my husband or father. The lobby seemed a mile wide. I thought I should faint at every step, but I didn’t, and I got an $800 order as my reward.”

Her customer base soon expanded to restaurants, hospitals and colleges, where the sanitizing effects of the hot water rinse were especially important. Eventually, homemakers began to purchase them as well.

Her Legacy Lives On
Following her death in 1913, Cochrane’s subsequent business, the Crescent Washing Machine Co., was acquired by KitchenAid via the Hobart Manufacturing Co., and the first KitchenAid dishwasher based on Cochrane’s design was introduced to the masses in 1949.

Unlike other residential dishwashers that simply splashed water on tableware, this model distributed water through a pressurized system.

Mass Appeal
By the 1950s modern appliances had reached a growing middle class, with access to hot tap water and disposable income.

Josephine was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 for patent No. 355,139 — her design for the mechanical dishwasher.

BrandSource, a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc., is a nationwide buying group for independent appliance, mattress, furniture, and CE dealers.

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