After their virtual family dinner this Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will be unwittingly thankful that Josephine Cochran overcame the societal hurdles of the 19th century and invented the first practical and effective dishwasher.
In 1883, at the age of 45, an unemployed Josephine Cochran decided, “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.” About a month later, her alcoholic husband died. Rather than abandon her idea, her husband’s death prompted her to turn her idea into her vocation.
After her patent was granted in 1885, she founded the Crescent Washing Machine Company and began selling her invention. Crescent was eventually acquired by KitchenAid, which later became a division of Westinghouse. According to Grand View Research, 2020 global dishwasher sales are expected to total ~ $7.2 billion.
6 Startup Lessons From Pioneer Inventor Josephine Cochran
“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. But then, I would have missed a very wonderful experience.”
Josephine Cochran, 19th Century American Inventor
1. It’s Not About Your Pedigree, What Matters Is Your “Wannabe”
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There were few opportunities for 19th century women to invent or innovate. Josephine had to battle not only her gender, but her lack of professional training. Initially, the men she contracted to build a prototype in the shed behind her house refused to follow her design, believing it was flawed.
In her own words, “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.”
Eventually, Josephine hired a young mechanic, George Butters, who built her design to her specifications. Mr. Butters became one of Ms. Cochrane’s first employees and eventually ran Crescent’s dishwasher factory.
2. First Isn’t Best
Several men had attempted to create an automated dishwasher before Josephine built her first prototype. However, they relied on brushes to scrub the dishes and required users to externally heat water and pour it into the machine.
Josephine’s primary breakthrough was the use of hot, pressurized water injected directly into her device. Her original design also included separate trays for cups, plates and silverware, a design feature that remains in use to this day.
Ms. Cochrane learned the hard way that the first invention doesn’t always win the day. Her grandfather, John Fitch, infamously invented the steamboat but failed to capitalize on his innovations, losing out to the charismatic and socially connected Robert Fulton (Harold Evans eloquently describes this tragic story in They Made America).
3. When You Have No Money, Publicity Matters (A Lot)
Unable to raise capital in conventional ways, Josephine had to seek non-paid forms of advertising. Through her persistence and the efficacy of her invention, she persuaded the organizers of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to include her device in the Machinery Hall exhibit, alongside inventions from Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Whitcomb Judson, inventor of the zipper. The judges awarded her the Exhibition’s highest prize, for “best mechanical construction, durability, and adaptation to its line of work.”
Her company leveraged this PR coup to great effect, as evidenced in this newspaper ad.
4. Society Be Damned
Josephine filed her initial patent in 1885 as, “J.G. Cochran,” fearing her application would be denied if the examiner realized it was submitted by a woman.
Once her IP was protected, she found that selling her invention as a sole female founder was even more daunting. It was atypical for middle age women of her social standing to travel unaccompanied by a man. Years later, Josephine recounted her first sale, “… (it was) almost the hardest thing I ever did… You cannot imagine what it was like in those days. I had never been anywhere without my husband or father… I thought I should faint at every step, but I didn’t, and I got an $800 (~ $21,000 in 2020) order as my reward.”
5. Seek Tailwinds & Avoid Headwinds
Josephine created her device to relieve women of the never-ending and thankless task of washing dishes, not to save hotels and restaurants money. Yet, she realized that the home market was not ready to adopt her invention.
During the mid-19th century, American’s didn’t appropriately value women’s household labor. As Josephine noted, “When it comes to buying something for the kitchen that costs $75 or $100 (~ $2,300 – $3,000 in 2020), 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.”
Rather than pursue a losing strategy, she repositioned her product such that several cultural and social changes drove its adoption, including: a heightened awareness of cleanliness following the discovery of viruses during the 1890s, increasing hotel and restaurant labor costs and the growing number of Americans who ate outside the home and utilized hotels.
6. Innovations Evolve From Industrial To Consumer Use
Many inventions are initially too large, complex and expensive for consumer use. However, many technologies evolve into a form factor and price point that facilitate consumer usage, such as timepieces (huge clock towers to wristwatches), air conditioning (movie theaters to window units) and microwave ovens (commercial kitchens to homes).
The dishwasher was no exception to this rule. Though Josephine’s original vision was to free woman who worked in the home from the drudgery of washing dishes, the average home’s plumbing infrastructure did not support her invention’s hot water and high-pressure requirements until the early 1960’s. In addition, by this time, Americans had begun to respect, and value work performed in the home, making the cost/benefit of a dishwasher purchase more apparent and palatable.
This Thanksgiving, give thanks to unsung entrepreneur and inventor, Josephine Cochran, as you load up her invention with your turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie laden dishes.