Inventions Ahead of Their Time: The Dishwasher
CREDIT: Editor B, via Flickr.com
In the 1922 silent film, "The Electric House," Buster Keaton plays a recent college graduate with a fraudulent degree in electrical engineering who takes a job to rewire and glamorize a wealthy man's house. His employer expects a bit of razzmatazz. What he gets, among other brilliant creations, is a conveyor belt that ferries dirty dishes through a basin of churning suds. As with all of Buster's shorts, everything goes welluntil it doesn't. Fine china shatters and the facade crumbles with it.
Buster was working with the absurd. A machine that washes dishes? What a concept! The idea may still have seemed crazy during the Roaring Twenties, but the history of the dishwasher began decades earlier, and its narrative deserves a blockbuster feature rather than a short film .
In 1850, Joel Houghton patented a hand-cranked device and described it as a machine "for washing table furniture." People either balked at the thought of pumping the thing, or were otherwise confused by the term, "table furniture," because it never caught on.
According to an account by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a socialite named Josephine Cochrane was the first person to design and patent a marketable, motorized dishwasher. The daughter of a civil engineer, Cochrane had a penchant both for entertaining and for problem solving. The problem was her servants. They couldn't seem to wash her fine china without leaving the evidence of human error, nicks and ugly chips . Cochrane decided it would be much safer to stack her breakables onto a wire rack, load it into a sealable box, and spin it as soapy water attacked from all sides.
When she realized that her idea might have wider appeal, Cochrane puts together a prototype and filed for a patent. In 1893 she showed her invention at the Chicago World's Fair and began distributing it through a company that would later take the name KitchenAid. By the time Buster filmed his short, Cochrane's dishwashers were turning out tidy cutlery in restaurants and hotel kitchens around America .
The next notable patent was filed by a man in England named William Howard Livens in 1924. The Livens invention could plug right into household plumbing systems and began to address the needs of domestic consumers. Shortly after, in a history described by Mary Ellen Snodgrass in her book, "Encyclopedia of Kitchen History," individual inventors yielded the market to the powerhouse corporations that would ultimately feed America's appliance hysteria . General Electric entered the scene, selling homeowners an affordable dishwasher that fit in their kitchens. And by the 1950's there was absolutely nothing absurd about owning one.
Buster's other inventionsan automatic billiard rack, a hands-free book-puller-outer, and a miniature train that circled the dining room table to deliver foodnever found quite their market. Not yet, that is.
This article is part of an ongoing series about inventions that arrived before the public was ready to accept them. You can read the rest of the series here.
Top 10 Modern Kitchen Innovations
10 Inventions That Were Ahead of Their Time
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