Birth of the Dishwasher

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If necessity is the mother of invention, then what caused a filthy rich woman to roll up her sleeves and build the first dishwasher? We've got the saucer full of secrets below.

The Dish Network

It's a little hard to feel sorry for Josephine Cochrane, given the problems most people faced in her day "“ dire poverty, backbreaking work schedules, poor health, and so on. Josephine, on the other hand, had that classic vexing issue of the very rich: it was so hard to find good help. Cochrane was the wife of an Illinois politician and the granddaughter of John Fitch, who invented the steamboat "“ the famous Robert Fulton built his version after Fitch did. A well-known socialite, she loved to entertain but found that after every party, the servants broke her delicate dishes while trying to wash them. And in those days, replacing a plate wasn't nearly as simple as heading to the local Macy's. China was expensive and had to be ordered by mail; it could take months
to arrive. Doing the dishes herself was out of the question. So, faced with a looming shortage of place settings, Cochrane decided she'd up and invent the dishwasher.

Here's where we really start to admire Cochrane. She actually did it. (After all, the inventor's instinct ran in her blood.) She got her hands dirty in the process, too. Out in the woodshed behind her house, Cochrane slaved away on a contraption that would
have made Rube Goldberg proud. She bent wires into a rack to hold the dishes, fastened the rack to a copper boiler, attached a motor that turned a wheel that squirted hot soapy water onto the dishes "“ basically, she built the same device that's sitting in your
kitchen today. Her rich friends placed their orders, and then so did local hotels and restaurants. The 1893 Chicago World's Fair called her machine "the best mechanical dishwasher pull.jpgconstruction, durability, and adaptation to its line of work." Cochrane died in 1913, but a year later, her company came out with a version small enough for the home. The dishwasher, it seemed, was about to eliminate a major household task.

But then it didn't. Unbelievably, America's housewives didn't want the thing "“ surveys showed that they actually liked doing the dishes. Cochrane's company, which would later come to be called KitchenAid, tried to go the health route, pointing out that the dishwasher could handle much hotter water than a person could, and that the dishes would be cleaner and more sanitary as a result. That didn't work either. The thing that finally sold the dishwasher was the arrival of the prosperous 1950s, when housewives first realized that maybe a little time off might not be such a bad thing after all.

In the Beginning goes on sale November 1st, and will be available at (respectable) bookstores everywhere!

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October 17, 2007 - 1:00am
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