It was also patented by a woman, which was almost unheard of the time.

By Matt Blitz
Updated April 17, 2019
Peter Dazeley

Earlier this year, many people freaked out over the news that basic modern kitchen appliances like microwaves, refrigerators and dishwashers could be spying on their owners. As experts have said since, this line of thinking is a bit fanciful. However, these appliances are a threat to be hacked and can have dire consequences if connected to a shared internet network. So, in other words, it's not completely insane to fear your dishwasher.

Of course, none of this was on the mind of Mrs. Josephine Cochrane, who built and patented the first commercially successful dishwashing machine in 1886. Here's the story of the much-overlooked kitchen appliance.

The dishwashing machine actually predates the Civil War. In 1850, an upstate New Yorker named Joel Houghton submitted a patent for what he called "Improvement in machines for washing table furniture." The son of a Revolutionary War veteran, it's not immediately known why he felt the world needed a better way to wash dishes. Either way, it's pretty clear from reading the patent that this invention actually made dishwashing harder. It required someone to fill several water buckets, load the dishes (or, as he called them, "table furniture") into the contraption and hand turn the heavy wooden handle so that the water poured onto the dishes. If all the crusty food didn't come off after the first bucket of water, the process was repeated until all the dishes were "thoroughly that they are ready for use without wiping and have a bright surface." The machine never caught on because, well, it didn't really work all that well. Knowing what I know about old and crusty food, simply pouring water dishes does not clean them in any kind of efficient manner. Houghton's machine faded into obscurity, but three decades later Josephine Cochrane revived the search for a better way to wash dishes—however, this wasn't because of efficiency, but rather because she got tired of her best china being chipped.

Mrs. Josephine Cochrane had an inventor's pedigree. Her great-grandfather was John Fitch, the 18th-century man who built the first steam-powered boat. Always someone who skewered social norms, she married the wealthy merchant William Cochran but added an "e" to the last name to allow herself a separate identity. Sometime in the 1870s, the couple moved together into a mansion outside of Chicago where they were known as gracious hosts and held their share of swanky dinner parties. And because they were rich people, William and Josephine never actually had to clean up after these parties. Instead they had a team of servants do the dirty work. Now, legend has it that Josephine got fed up that her china was constantly being chipped and scratched after rough hand-washings. So, one night she stepped into the kitchen herself and attempted to show the servants how to properly hand-wash a plate. But she was no better than they were, also chipping and scratching plates while trying to get the dried and crusty food off. As most inventors do, she thought there had to be a better way.

Now, the timeline of when Cochrane actually designed and build her dishwashing machine isn't exactly known. Her husband William died in 1883 and, as a parting gift, left her a mountain of unexpected debt. So, it seems likely that an idea she had been toying with for a while suddenly became a hope for a better future. Working with a local mechanic named George Butters, she filed a patent under the name "J.G. Cochrane" because the patent was more likely to be approved if the name was gender ambiguous. In 1899, she filed another patent with her full name (but it wasn't approved until 1903). As both patents lay out, Cochrane believed that water jets were the answer to the problem both her and Houghton had in regard to stubborn food remnants. Working in the shed behind her house, she constructed compartments of metal racks designed to hold dishes, cups and bowls. Placing them in a wheel that laid flat inside an airtight copper boiler, she installed a motor underneath. When the wheel spun, high pressure hot soapy water jetted out. At its most basic, this is pretty much how a modern-day dishwasher works.

Calling it the "Cochrane Dishwasher," she took out ads in the local Chicago newspapers. While a few restaurants and hotels bought early prototypes, her real big break came at the World's Columbian Exposition (or the 1893 Chicago World's Fair) when her invention was given an award for its design and durability. It quickly became the go-to item for many of Chicago's businesses but not for individual customers, because of the high amount of water and electricity needed to run the dishwasher—something that many families simply could not afford. It wouldn't be until after World War II that the dishwasher became ubiquitous in the middle-class home.

By the time Josephine Cochrane died in 1913, she owned her company—the Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company—and was making a steady profit selling corporate dishwashers. A few decades later, her company would be sold to KitchenAid, so her legacy of dishwashers lives on to this day.