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Josephine Cochrane photo

Josephine Cochrane

Date of Birth

03/08/1839

Birth Place

Not Given Ohio

Primary Residence

Shelbyville, Illinois

Area(s) of Achievement

Business, Technology

Ethnicity

European-American

Groups

Women in Technology

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Josephine Cochrane

Josephine Cochrane sat down in her armchair one day and designed a mechanical dishwasher.  Her first design, crafted in a shed behind her home, was hand-powered. To help with the construction, she enlisted a mechanic named George Butters, of the Illinois Central Railroad.  In 1886 she applied for and received her first patent.  She named her creation the Garis-Cochran Dish-Washing Machine. (Garis was her family name and Chochran her husband’s name which she changed to Cochrane after his death.)  Other designs for dishwashers had relied on mechanical scrubbers; Chochrane’s was the first to use water pressure—the method still basic to today’s models.

Although she was the daughter of a civil engineer and granddaughter of the inventor of a steam-powered boat, Cochrane had lived a quite conventional life. However, her determination to bring her invention to the homes of other women slaving at the sink helped her overcome many challenges.  She had intended the dishwasher for home kitchens, but was only successful in selling to hotels and other institutions.  She explained her failure to attract the home market in this way:

 “When it comes to buying something for the kitchen that costs $75 or $100, a woman begins at once to figure out all the other things she could do with the money. She hates dishwashing—what woman does not?—but she has not learned to think of her time and comfort as worth money. Besides, she isn’t the deciding factor when it comes to spending comparatively large sums of money for the house. Her husband sees that adversely, generally, in the case of costly kitchen conveniences—though he will put comptometers and all that into his office every day of the week without even mentioning the fact to her.”

Her first attempt at sales led her from her home in Shelbyville, Illinois to the premiere hotels of Chicago.  A friend introduced her to the manager of the Palmer House; but she had to approach the other grand hotels by herself.  She later recalled: “That was almost the hardest thing I ever did, I think, crossing the great lobby of the Sherman House alone. You cannot imagine what it was like in those days, twenty-five years ago, for a woman to cross a hotel lobby alone. I had never been anywhere without my husband or father —the lobby seemed a mile wide. I thought I should faint at every step, but I didn’t—and I got an $800 order as my reward.”

Her big breakthrough came in 1893 at the magnificent Chicago world’s fair (the Columbian Exposition).  No less than nine Garis-Cochran washers were installed in the restaurants and pavilions of the fair and her dishwasher, placed in the mechanical exhibition, won first place for the “best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work.”  In 1898 Mrs. Cochrane became a bona fide manufacturer. No longer dependent on a contractor to build her machines, she opened her own factory near Chicago with money she had saved herself.

By the 1990’s, Josephine Cochrane, who in 1887 had been afraid to so much as walk across a hotel lobby,, was traveling widely to oversee installation of her machines.

In 1912, at the age of seventy-three, she undertook her most ambitious business trip, traveling to New York to sell machines to several new hotels, including the Biltmore, and to department stores, such as Lord & Taylor, which bought four Garis-Cochrans for its restaurants. The company was finally starting to thrive in the years just before her death in 1913.  In 1926 the company was purchased by Hobart and ultimately became KitchenAid which introduced the first successful home dishwasher in the 1940’s—finally bringing to American women the invention that Josephine Cochrane had intended for them.

Written by Johanna Brenner

Sources:  Fenster, J. M., The Woman Who Invented the Dishwasher. Invention & Technology, Fall 1999, pp. 54-61.  See also, Lemelson-MIT Program, inventor of the week archive, http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/cochrane.html

Honored By

Lemelson Foundation