Dishwasher History: A Timeline of an Appliance Favorite

David Beckam

With the advent of electricity and a decline in household servants helping in the kitchen, appliances began to gradually come into use. Today, many people still hand-wash all of their kitchenware, but there is a significant amount of us who take for granted the luxury of having a machine that washes and dries our dishes for us. So, when did the dishwasher come about? Let’s take a look at the progression of one of our prized kitchen helpers.

Believe it or not, the first product to resemble what was to become the modern dishwasher was patented by one Joel Houghton in 1850. That’s right, before the Civil War, people were thinking about how to lighten the burden of household chores. While it was just a wooden machine with a hand-turned wheel that splashed water on dishes, it was a start in the right direction.

“If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.”

So proclaimed Josephine Cochran in 1886. Engineering was in her blood, as her father John Fitch was the inventor of the steamboat. Cochran unveiled her invention at the 1893 World’s Fair, but it was only the hotels and restaurants that show interest in buying her idea. Cochran’s design had racks to hold plates, saucers and cups.

By today’s standards, her invention is of course primitive. But Cochran’s hand-operated mechanical dishwasher did an adequate job. The company she founded to manufacture her dishwashers went on to become KitchenAid.

Once indoor plumbing became more prevalent and could be used in conjunction with dishwashers in the 1920s, appliance makers Miele pushed the dishwasher further into the future.

“In 1929, we launched Europe’s first electric top-loading dishwasher ready for series production,” says Neil Pooley, Miele’s group product manager.

But the stock market crash brought on the Great Depression, which made selling a luxury item virtually impossible. In 1937, the dishwasher that most resembles what we know them to be now was invented by William Howard Livens. This machine had a front door for loading, a rotating sprayer and wire racks. In 1940, electric elements used for drying the dishes were incorporated into the design.

It would be several decades before the dishwasher became a practical item for most homes, due to their steep pricing. After Miele introduced the first automated dishwasher in 1960, the cost of a dishwasher was still out of reach for most people. For example, an RCA dishwasher in 1966 went for as much as $218. When considering inflation, that would be more than $1,500 in today’s money.

But like most inventions that created enough demand, the price of dishwashers gradually came down, and by the time the ’80s rolled around, it became one of the most popular kitchen appliances in America.

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