The Invention of the Dishwashing Machine

Josephine (Garis) Cochrane was the daughter of a civil engineer, born in 1839. Her husband was a very successful merchant and Josephine became involved with the elite in Chicago. It was a dinner party at her mansion that changed the direction of her life.

Josephine became upset when some of her dishes were chipped when washed by servants. She set out to invent a machine to wash dishes. There had been existing dishwashers developed, but these were ineffective. The problem was that the washing action was by scrubbing; whereas, Josephine felt that water pressure would be more effective. But life intervened on her journey to inventing the dishwasher.

Josephine’s husband died, and she was faced with the heavy debt that he had accumulated. The idea of a dishwasher thus became a necessity to avoid financial ruin. Josephine had an idea but no technical training. She enlisted the help of a mechanic to build a prototype of her dishwasher in a shed behind her home. The prototype proved promising.

Finding customers for her dishwasher was a problem. She envisioned the dishwasher as being sold to homeowners, but few homes had the hot water supply needed. Her dishwasher was too expensive for most homeowners. Another problem was more sociological. The prevailing attitude was that dishwashing by hand was a proper duty for women.

Josephine found a more willing market in hotels. The challenge that she faced in selling to hotels was gender-based. Women were not generally thought of as salespeople. In fact, walking into a hotel as a woman unoccupied by a man was disconcerting. But Josephine was successful in gaining sales. Josephine formed a company to produce her dishwashers. When she died at the age of 74, her company was sold to KitchenAid. It wasn’t until 40 years after her death that dishwashers became available to homeowners.

Some people become hidden heroes because of life’s challenges. It’s likely that Josephine’s motivation for inventing the dishwasher was spurred on by her financial necessity. The challenges that she faced may have been insurmountable without her need to support herself and remove herself from her husband’s death.

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“If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.”– (Josephine Cochrane)

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