Josephine Cochrane was a well-heeled socialite who enjoyed lavish entertaining and had little tolerance for chipped china. She had even less patience for hand washing her fine family heirlooms herself. Cochrane had already started designing a dish washing machine when her husband passed away. She was 44. When she learned that he left her with a pile of debts and little cash. So she got busy with her big moneymaking idea.
By most accounts, Josephine Cochrane — formerly Cochran but she later added an “e”—was aware of previous inventions by men. Joel Houghton’s wood machine patented in 1850 splashed water over dishes when a handle was turned. In 1865, L.A. Alexander patented his dishwasher that spun the dishes around in water with the turn of a handle. Neither of these worked effectively.
Cochrane vowed to do better.
After her husband’s death, Cochrane hired George Butters, a local mechanic with the Illinois Central Railroad. He built Cochrane’s dishwasher prototype in a shed by her house in Shelbyville, Illinois. When it was finished he installed it in her kitchen.
In a time when the patent office was flooded with new inventions, it was not unusual for early prototypes to be built as passion projects from home. In 1896, Henry Ford built his first Quadricycle in his shed. Victorian Secret: When he and his peers discovered it was too large to fit through the door, they had to demolish part of the wall.
On December 28, 1886 her dishwasher was awarded patent #355,139. Although powered by a hand crank their final design was similar to today’s electric dishwashers. Dishes were held in wire racks inside a watertight metal box. Streams of soapy water cleaned them. Water was then was poured over the rack to rinse.
“My invention relates to an improvement in machines for washing dishes, in which a continuous stream of either soap-suds or clear hot water is supplied to a crate holding the racks or cages containing the dishes while the crate is rotated so as to bring the greater portion thereof under the action of the water.” USPTO
Cochrane contracted a company in Decatur, Illinois to manufacture her first dishwashers. She hired Butters to manage the process. She sold some units to friends and wealthy homeowners, but sales were mainly to restaurants and hotels. The price of approximately $150 was steep for the average family. Additionally most households didn’t have large enough hot water supplies.
The Chicago World’s Fair (October 21, 1892 to October 30, 1893) was a symbol of American ingenuity and America’s emerging dominance as an industrial power. An estimated 27,000,000 visitors viewed 65,000 exhibits in 200 buildings. Included in the many “firsts” were the world’s largest Ferris Wheel and Edison’s kinetoscope. It was also where Nikola Tesla ended the Current War.
Among the exhibitors, Josephine Cochrane personally demonstrated her dishwasher in the Machinery Hall rather than the Women’s Building. She won the highest prize for ‘best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its purpose. She sold nine dishwashers to people running restaurants at the Exposition.
She initially marketed her dishwashers to restaurants and hotels as the Garis-Cochran Dish-Washing Machine Company. By the late 1890s she outgrew her contracted factory. She and Butters started their own operation in an abandoned schoolhouse. That became the Crescent Washing Machine Company.
She convinced several Shelbyville residents to invest in her new organization. She said that one of the most difficult challenges of growing her business was making commercial sales calls at a time when it was still considered improper for a lady to go to a hotel alone.
Always working to improve her product Cochrane developed a motorized model. She registered a patent for it in 1900. This one featured racks that moved back and forth and it pumped the water mechanically. Later models featured revolving racks and had the ability to drain into a sink through a hose.
In 1911 Crescent announced its first “small” dishwasher made for home use. These dishwashers used jet-spray arms much like today’s models. Hobart bought The Crescent Company in 1926 and later became KitchenAid.
She managed her company until she died of “exhaustion” or a stroke on August 3, 1913.
The United States passed its first patent law in 1790, but few women applied to patent their invention. One reason for this was that many states did not allow married women to own property in their own right.
Since 1790, the USPTO has issued more than 6 million patents. According to Equity In Innovation: Women Inventors And Patents, the 2016 research paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), only 7 percent of “primary inventors” listed on U.S patents are women. Less than 20% of patents in 2010 included a female inventor. The IWPR estimates that even though significant strides have been made over the last 30 years, at this rate it will take approximately 75 years to reach parity for women in patenting.
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