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Object lesson

It starts when you sink into his arms and it ends with your arms in his sink." I never did ask my dad what he thought of my 1980s badge. He always seemed too busy washing up. But then, he was an exception. Twenty years ago, only just over half of men in the UK washed up even once a week.

It would be good to think that Josephine Cochrane invented dishwashers to relieve her sisters of this chore. But the wealthy Illinois socialite did not give a damn about the women who washed her dishes because this was 1886 and they were her servants. She just wanted to stop them breaking the china.

Cochrane took to her woodshed and emerged with an ingenious device. She measured her antique crockery and made wire holders for the plates, saucers and cups. These she attached to the inside of a wheel that was on top of a copper boiler. As the wheel turned, hot sudsy water jetted up from the boiler and washed the crockery. Her rich friends were keen to get their hands on the machine, and many Illinois hotels and restaurants followed suit. The inventor went on to win top prize for a mechanical construction at the 1893 World Fair.

In 1913, Cochrane washed and went, worn out at the age of 74. She claimed changing from a socialite into a mechanic had been easy, but changing into a saleswoman hadn't. Her company never really broke into the domestic market. The average household was not prepared to pour all its precious hot water away on one wash, and even if it did, primitive soaps often failed to clean the plates. Also, and crucially, women were not interested. In those days, housework was arduous as well as tedious. Clothes washing was the most dreaded chore, but washing the dishes was seen as a little oasis.

Sales did not take off until the 1950s, when women began to believe they could pull the plug on domestic slavery. By then, new detergents had fixed the dirt problem. Dishwasher design was also better - instead of putting the dishes in rotating baskets or on to belts that moved them through the hot water, the process was reversed. The dishes stood still, and the water jets moved.

By 1999, a quarter of households in the UK owned dishwashers, a figure predicted to rise to a third by 2020. Cochrane's company eventually became part of Whirlpool, whose European arm employs 12,000 people with annual sales of several billion US dollars. Good news for hands that don't do dishes.

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