Diving With Josephine Cochrane

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longeur is French for diver, skin-diver, or pan-diver. Less fancy-sounding, it’s someone who washes dishes. The first mechanically-powered submarine of the same name was launched in 1863, and in his picaresque 1933 novel, George Orwell recounted his marginal days as a lowly hotel plongeur in Paris. Sometime between these two completely unrelated events, Josephine Cochrane decided to invent a mechanical plongeur out of resentment.

As a wealthy Illinois socialite, Mrs. Cochrane threw a lot of dinner parties. One particular evening, she discovered with dismay that her servants had chipped her finest china during washing. Allegedly, the china had been passed down from several generations dating back to the 1600s. From that point on, she would carefully wash the china herself and hate every minute of it. Not only did she think that washing the dishes was a total waste of time, so was the drying part, and she had more than enough time on her plongeur hands to conclude that. Maybe if she wasn’t so spoiled in her upbringing, she wouldn’t have resented the task so much. But she did, and rallied.

Mrs. Cochrane retreated into her home library, and half an hour later into her musings, had an idea for the first workable dishwashing machine. (It’s true; the first two dishwashing device patents were granted to Joel Houghton in 1850, and to L.A. Alexander in 1865, but neither of their devices became common household appliances.) The basic premise for her design hasn’t changed much since its inception: using water pressure as a scrubbing force, soapy water would be sprayed onto dishes held securely in a wire rack. Both her friends and husband encouraged her to develop the idea, though her husband was ill at the time. He died shortly after, leaving her with few assets — certainly not enough to maintain her socialite status. It could’ve been disconcerting. She could’ve moved in with relatives or taken up a proletarian job, but at that point, it didn’t matter. Mrs. Cochrane was already too busy in the backyard shed hammering away on her copper wash-boiler.

“Women are inventive, the common opinion to the contrary notwithstanding.”

“Women are inventive, the common opinion to the contrary notwithstanding,” Josephine Cochrane once said. “You see, we are not given a mechanical education, and that is a great handicap. It was to me—not in the way you suppose, however. I couldn’t get men to do the things I wanted in my way until they had tried and failed in their own. And that was costly for me. They knew I knew nothing, academically, about mechanics, and they insisted on having their own way with my invention until they convinced themselves my way was the better, no matter how I had arrived at it.”

Mrs. Cochrane’s mechanical intuition wasn’t likely accidental. Her father, John Garis, was a civil engineer who helped consult on the development of Chicago in the 1850s, a time when canals and railroads began to reach in and out of the burgeoning city. Only vaguely remembered was her grandfather, John Fitch, who invented the steamboat in 1786, more than twenty years before Fulton’s famous Clermont. Invention ran in the bloodlines, and converged where circumstance brought it to her full potential.

Aiding in the construction of Cochrane’s first prototype was George Butters, a mechanic of the Illinois Central Railroad. He would remain with her undertaking till the very end. Within two month’s time, Cochrane was the first on the block to own a dishwasher. Neighbors marveled at it, and one even called it a blessing to humanity. A local businessman had highly endorsed the invention, and wrote, “The first class hotels will be benefited, the common hotels will delight their guests with clean dishes and the scullery maid henceforth, if not a thing of beauty, may become a joy forever.”

The Garis-Cochran Dish-Washing Machine received its patent on December 28, 1886, and along with a sheaf of testimonials, Mrs. Cochrane set off to market her product as fit for households, though she quickly learned that domestic politics of the late nineteenth-century would thwart her efforts. In an interview, she shared what she had learned: “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.”

Being a smart businesswoman, Mrs. Cochrane wasn’t stubborn about which part of humanity her invention would bless. She switched gears and traveled to Chicago to target institutions and hotels, and wrote to everyone she knew. By the advice of a rich friend, she contacted the manager of the Palmer Hotel, one of the most famous hotels in the country, and made a triumphant sale. From there, she moved on to the Sherman House, another big hotel. “You asked me what was the hardest part of getting into business,” Mrs. Cochrane recalled for the reporter for the Record-Herald. “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.”

Though attempts at raising outside capital was a trying one (and ultimately unsuccessful), luck had it that 1893 was a banner year for business. It was the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, and it’s obvious enough that what people really do at a fair is eat, and plenty at that. Mrs. Cochrane knew that when people eat, they leave dirty dishes behind. Backstage, nine Garis-Cochran machines were put to work, and according to a restaurant fairgrounds manager, “washed without delay the soiled dishes left by eight relays of 1000 soldiers each, completing each lot within thirty minutes.” He also added, “The deduction must be that this machine is perfect.”

By 1989, Mrs. Cochrane had opened her own factory near Chicago with the money she had saved herself. Into the early twentieth century, Garis-Cochran machines were in use all over the country, though still not yet a modern home convenience. Her company had just started to really pick up right before her death in 1913 by nervous exhaustion. Her fate isn’t a pitiful one, though. “If I knew all I know today when I began to put the dishwasher on the market, I never would have had the courage to start,” she said in looking back. “But then, I would have missed a very wonderful experience.”

In 1926, Mrs. Cochrane’s company was absorbed by Hobart, a company with a good reputation for well-engineered appliances. Hobart later changed the name of its subsidiary to KitchenAid, now a part of WhirlPool Corporation (and strangely, there is no mention of Mrs. Cochrane on either Hobart’s or KitchenAid’s Wikipedia page). Josephine Cochrane never got rich from what she imparted on humanity, but she was able to provide a comfortable lifestyle for herself and her employees, and controlled her own company until her death. Near the end of her life, she observed that “it is a good world and getting better every day.”

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October 19, 2010

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