Cochrane was born Josephine Garis in Ohio in 1839, the daughter of civil engineer John Garis and granddaughter of John Fitch, the inventor of the first steamboat service in the US.
After graduating from high school she married William Cochran and while she took his name, she demonstrated her independence of spirit by preferring to spell it with a letter ‘e’ at the end.
The couple were quite wealthy, William making his fortune in the dry goods business, and in 1870 they moved into a mansion and regularly threw large dinner parties using heirloom china supposedly dating from the 1600s. It was after one of these dinner parties that a servant chipped some of the dishes while washing up. Cochrane was furious and refused to let the servant handle the dishes again.
Washing up became a chore for Cochrane and she began to wonder why no-one had invented a machine to do the job. After all, there were machines to cut grass and sew clothes so how hard could it be? With her hands in the sink, Cochrane decided to invent such a machine herself.
She took herself off to the library to think it through and came up with the basic concept within half an hour. Her idea was to stack the dishes in a rack and then use water under pressure to clean them.
William was too fond of alcohol and died as result in 1883 leaving Cochrane in debt. Making her idea for an automatic dishwasher a reality became a necessity for her own financial security.
Cochrane showed her design to a number of engineers which was a frustrating experience because few of them took her seriously due to her lack of mechanical knowledge. She said:
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.
Cochrane’s first customers were hotels and restaurants rather than the domestic market and in 1893 she demonstrated her invention at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where she won the highest prize for ‘best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work’.
Orders flooded in and she established the Garis-Cochran factory in 1897. Cochrane was still personally selling her machines in 1912 at the age of seventy-three and she died of a stroke in 1913. Her company was bought by Hobart which became KitchenAid and is now the Whirlpool Corporation.