As is often the case with inventions that evolved over time, several people have been lauded as the ‘first’ to invent the dishwasher.
Joel Houghton created a dishwashing machine as early as 1850 in the US, but it isn’t what we would call a washing machine today – it was more of an automated dish rinser. It consisted of a wooden container that held the dishes whilst the operator turned a crank that rotated the dishes under a spray of water. Only a university student would call them ‘washed’.
The next iteration came in 1865, when L.A. Alexander added a wooden rack to hold the dished upright as the operator cranked them past the sprayer. This was at least beginning to look like a modern dishwasher, but it still wasn’t practical. Neither of these two devices were popular. They just didn’t work.
The first automatic dishwasher to see any real acceptance was the one introduced at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It had been invented by a woman named Josephine Cochrane six years earlier in 1887. This was still a hand-cranked model, but it did seem to actually do the job. Interestingly, Cochrane never washed dishes herself. It is said she invented the device to stop her servants from chipping the china when washing it.
The first dishwasher we might recognise was a British invention, patented by William Livens in 1924. It had a front-facing loading door, the dishes rested on a wire rack, and the water sprayer rotated around them. In 1940 he introduced the first model with a drying feature.
This came at a time when running water was just becoming common in UK kitchens, so appliances like Liven’s dishwasher could be properly installed. This also gave rise to the first proper dishwasher repair and installation problems.
Despite the existence of what we would recognise as a dishwasher back in the 20s, it would be another generation before these machines really became popular. As the post-war economy began to revive in the 1950s, wealthy English families started buying these labour-saving devices in droves. By the 70s, they were a common site all over Western Europe.
So who actually ‘invented’ the dishwasher? Take your pick, but I personally would go with Livens. If I have to turn the crank, it’s not the machine washing the dishes.