A machine to wash dishes - gently

In 1886, Josephine Cochrane said, "If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I'll do it myself." It wasn't because she didn't like doing the dishes. Mrs. Cochrane was a wealthy woman who never washed dishes; her servants did. But her servants also tended to break dishes, too, especially when there were lots of them to wash after a party.

Cochrane thought that if she could make a machine that washed dishes, she wouldn't have to spend all that time and money ordering new dishes to replace broken ones.

She rigged up wire compartments into which her dishes, cups, and saucers would fit. Then the compartments were fastened around a wheel that sat in a large copper pot. A motor turned the wheel while hot soapy water squirted up from the bottom of the pot. Success!

Word of Cochrane's machine spread. Soon, hotels and restaurants began to inquire about it. They had broken-dish problems, too.

Her patented design won the highest award at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair for "the best mechanical construction, durability, and adaptation to its line of work."

Cochrane's Crescent Washing Machine Company successfully manufactured and sold the machines to businesses. But when a smaller, home dishwasher was marketed in 1914, few sold. Why?

Part of the problem was technological. Home hot-water heaters were small. A dishwasher might need more hot water to do one load than the tank could hold. Another reason: soap. It can leave a scummy film on dishes if the water contains lots of dissolved minerals. (Synthetic detergent, which does not leave a residue, was invented later, in Germany during World War I. Then, soap was in short supply because of the war.)

The third problem was that many of the people who washed the dishes - overwhelmingly women - didn't see dishwashing as an awful chore. In a 1915 poll of American housewives conducted by the dishwasher manufacturer, women said that washing the dinner dishes relaxed them at the end of the day.

Home dishwashers did not become popular until the 1950s. What had changed? Women's attitudes, dishwasher detergent, and dishwasher design.

New dishwasher detergents eliminated the soap-residue problem. The new design worked better and was more convenient. Rather than placing dishes in rotating wire baskets or onto conveyer belts that moved them past jets of hot water, the process was reversed. The dishes stood still, and the water jets moved. Mechanical arms spun and sprayed water and detergent onto dishes placed in stationary racks.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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