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"Improvements in Dish Washers." Patent no. 1133, filed by W.L. Thompson, 1871


Patent no. 1133. Filing year 1871.

"Improvements in Dish Washers," W.L. Thompson.

The industrial revolution led to enormous changes in the spheres of science, industry, and transportation. But the inventiveness that characterized the 19th century also had an impact on the home front, as citizens made the transition from a pioneer world to a modern one.

It became clear to many that just as automation in various industries increased productivity, automation of menial household tasks could cut down what had been, in pioneer days, a dawn-to-dusk time commitment.

William Thompson's "Dominion Dish Washer," pictured above, was one attempt to automate dishwashing. In fact, there was nothing very sophisticated about his "machine," which was really just a step up from manual washing. Dishes were arranged between slats in a cylinder with a perforated bottom. The cylinder was lowered into a tub holding "suds," the top was closed, and a handle was joined to a shaft through the middle of the cylinder that emerged from the cover. Using the handle, the cylinder was cycled clockwise and counterclockwise to keep the suds in "agitation" and thus clean the dishes.

Clearly, the device required a significant amount of manual labour to operate, and considerable strength, too. There was a potential risk of damage to the dishes in its operation. Most significantly, it didn't seem to offer a rinse cycle. If dishes had to be rinsed manually, the purpose of having a machine was more or less defeated.

In fact, Thompson's machine was one of several dishwashers being developed at the time around North America. Most designs were patented by American women. The most successful was filed by Josephine Cochran of Shelbyville, Illinois, in 1885. Cochran's model held two cylinders -- one with suds, one with hot water -- and a piston system to pump the water or suds alternately through the dish rack. There was also a mechanism to have the water and suds return to their respective cylinders after their cycle. The Cochran dishwasher handled both washing and rinsing, while the piston pump saved on manual labour. The machine was also scalable, and steam-powered versions were sold to large restaurants. It's hard to imagine Thompson's dishwasher cleaning a restaurant's worth of dishes!

The dishwasher reached its zenith with the introduction of an automatic model in 1940. The dishwasher, the automated washer and dryer for clothes, and other domestic devices led to another significant development for the average 20th-century homemaker: leisure time.


Van Dulken, Stephen. Inventing the 19th Century: 100 Inventions That Shaped the Victorian Age, from Aspirin to the Zeppelin. New York: New York University Press, 2001.