In 1900, the domestic dishwasher did not exist in either mechanical or electric form. Nineteenth-century patents for dishwashers were conceived in terms of commercial or institutional use. The most influential of these has been L. A. Alexander’s U.S. patent of 1865. Alexander’s dishwasher consisted of a tub with a rotor at the bottom attached by a crankshaft to a handle in the lid. A rack with tangential slots for dishes was placed above the rotor. As the user turned the handle, the rotor threw water outward against the dishes. While Alexander’s dishwasher was conceived for commercial catering use, a similar but smaller-scale dishwasher was patented by American housewife Josephine Cockran in 1886.

The first commercial hand-cranked dishwasher intended for home use was shown by the Walker Company of Syracuse, NewYork, at the New York State Fair in 1910. Walker produced an electric version in 1918, with a small electric motor at the base to drive the agitator. Hand-cranked models continued to be sold in the 1920s. A British example was the Polliwashup machine, effusively advertised as the “greatest household labour-saver of all Time.” General Electric purchased the Walker Company in 1930 and began to remodel the dishwasher. It brought out the first square-tub model in 1932. The first electric dishwasher sold in Britain, in 1937, was a U.S. product, a Thor model made by the Hurley Machine Company.

In the late 1930s and again ten years later, a combined washing machine and dishwasher appeared on the market in the United States. The two functions were served by having a long agitator for clothes washing that was interchangeable with a short agitator plus dish rack. This model was a top loader but from the late 1940s, as with automatic washing machines, manufacturers began to favor the front-loading design. The price of dishwashers in Britain fell when Hoover began to manufacture them there. The introduction of plastic sink-top models by companies such as Electrolux was another way of making dishwashers more affordable and at the same time addressing the problem of space constraints in the typical British kitchen.

The performance of dishwashers benefited from improvements in soap and detergent technology in the 1950s. By the mid-1960s, special dishwashing powders and rinse aids were available. Considering the very limited commercial success of dishwashers even in the United States, it is surprising that Kelvinator demonstrated a high-tech concept of dishwashing in Seattle in 1962. This was the water-free and detergent-free ultrasonic dishwasher. The concept never got beyond the prototype stage, so its reliability is untested.

Dishwashers were still a luxury item in the United States until the late 1960s when annual sales reached 2 million units. In Britain, only 2 percent of homes had dishwashers by 1973. This slow pattern of growth has baffled those historians of domestic technology who have argued that dishwashing, as a frequent and tedious chore, is an obvious candidate for automation. Recently, manufacturers have applied the same technical innovations to dishwashers as to washing machines and for the same reasons. The ability of the fuzzy logic chip to optimize water and detergent use allows manufacturers to promote dishwashers as environmentally friendly, setting aside the issue of electricity consumption.