This Time-Saving Patent Paved the Way for the Modern Dishwasher

Josephine Cochran just wanted to stop having broken dishes

A 2013 Romanian stamp features Cochran and her dishwasher. Wikimedia Commons

While hand washing the dishes has its upsides–it’s a meditative pastime that sometimes saves water–anyone who does it regularly can tell you it has its downsides too. For one thing, slippery plates sometimes get dropped and broken, ruining the symmetry of your four-serving set. For another, it can be time-consuming.

These discomforts are as old as dishes themselves. But on this day in 1886, an Illinois woman named Josephine Garis Cochran received a patent that went some way to addressing her specific problems. “Cochran, a wealthy woman who entertained often, wanted a machine that could wash dishes faster than her servants, and without breaking them,” writes the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Although some dishwashers had already been invented, none of them were commercially viable, so none were available to her. Undaunted, “she measured the dishes first, then she made wire compartments, each designed to fit plates, cups, or saucers,” writes the USPTO. According to her patent, the racks fit into a flat wheel sitting inside a boiler. “A motor turned the wheel while hot soapy water squirted from the bottom of the boiler and rained down on the dishes,” the patent office writes.

This invention worked. And the dishwasher was Cochran’s ticket out of poverty. While she had lived well when Mr. Cochran was alive, he died shortly after she began to work on her invention, leaving her with his significant debts and only about $1500 in cash, according to historian John H. Lienhard. She got to work in the same shed beside her house where she’d done the original inventing, this time to produce the machine for others.

Her crude-but-effective original design got some buy-in from friends and acquaintances, writes author Charles Panati, but her real market was hotels and restaurants, “where volume dishwashing–and breakage–was a continuous and costly problem.”

“Realizing that she had hit upon a timely invention, Mrs. Cochran patented her invention in December 1886; her washer went on to win the highest award at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair for, as the citation read, ‘the best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work,’” he writes. At that history-making exhibition, her device was one of a number of food inventions heralding a new American relationship with cookery that would continue into the twentieth century–such as premade candy Cracker Jacks and Aunt Jemima pancake mix.

It also stood among a number of other electric inventions such as neon lights, an electric railway and an early fax machine, writes Matt Novak for Gizmodo. “The twentieth century was just on the horizon, and people swarmed to Chicago to see what was in store,” he writes.

This publicity helped the dishwasher. But while hotels and large restaurants offered a market for the newly-formed Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company, “the machine’s large size limited the company’s sales,” writes the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which inducted Cochran in 2006. “It was not until the 1950s that increased availability of hot water in the home, effective dishwashing detergent and a change in attitudes toward housework made dishwashers popular with the general public.”

However, Cochran’s company survived, and her design for the dishwasher remains the basis of dishwasher designs today. “The Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company became part of KitchenAid, and in 1949," the inventor's hall of fame writes, "the first KitchenAid dishwasher based on Cochran’s design was introduced to the public.”

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