Famous Female Inventors
The Spirit of Invention
Sometimes it is easy to forget how far women have come in our quest for equality. We forget that in the United States we have been able to vote for less than one hundred years, and have only had the right to hold property (physical or intellectual) a few years more than that.
How must it have felt to invent something from the tiny seed of an idea to the nuts and bolts of the product only to be denied a patent on the basis of your gender, or worse yet to have your idea stolen by a man who knows you can never profit from it?
So here are a few of the female pioneers in invention, women who thought outside the box, some of whom made millions, others nothing.
Often referred to as the world's first computer programmer, Lovelace collaborated with Charles Babbage, using advanced mathematics to work out a language for his machine, a machine now acknowledged as the first computer. The US Department of Defense named their 1979 software "Ada" in her honor.
Inspired by a visit to NYC in the early 1900s during which Anderson observed the constant need for drivers to stop to clear their windshields, she went home and invented the first windshield wiper; a handle inside of the vehicle attached to a squeegee on the outside. It was patented by her in 1903.
Interestingly, it was a woman inventor, Charlotte Bridgwood, who patented the first automatic windshield wiper fourteen years later in 1917.
In 1941, the famous Austrian actress with co-inventor George Anthiel developed and patented an unbreakable code used to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, their "Spread Spectrum Technology" stopped the Allies classified messages from being intercepted by Nazis.
It was not until the Cuban Missile Crisis that it's true military implications were realized. More recently the technology was utilized to form the technical backbone making cell phones and other wireless operations possible.
Though she is the recipient or co-recipient of 17 U.S. patents, Kwolek's most noted invention began in 1971 when she discovered a liquid crystalline polymer solution that led the way to the invention of Kevlar®, a synthetic material five times as strong as steel. As the main ingredient in the production of bulletproof vests Kevlar® has become a staple piece of equipment for soldiers and law enforcement as it is not only strong and light but fire and wear resistant as well.
Founder of the Garis-Cochran Manufacturing Company which later became part of KitchenAid and the inventor of the first truly usable mechanical dishwasher. Although there were other dishwashers before hers they were slow, labor intensive and not widely used. Cochrane on the other hand began receiving orders for her design almost immediately from hotels and restaurants all over her home state of Illinois. She even won the prize for "best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work" at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Mary Phelps Jacob
Jacob, a young New York socialite tired of uncomfortable and heavy corsets took two silk handkerchiefs and had her maid sew them together with ribbon and cord. After spreading her inventions to friends Jacobs patented it and sold the rights to Warner Brothers Corset Company making her invention the most used brassiere in the United States for the next 30 years.
Additional Female Inventors
- Dr. Temple Grandin - animal restraint systems
- Dr. Grace Murray Hopper - COBOL computer language
- Patsy Sherman - ScotchGuard stain repellent
- Rachel Zimmerman - Blissymbols communication software for physically impaired
- Patricia Billings - Geobond® (non toxic alternative to asbestos)
- Williamina Fleming - created the system of assigning stars a letter corresponding to how much hydrogen is observed in their spectra
- Florence Barbara Seibert - Developed the skin test for tuberculosis
Gertrude Elion knew she wanted work in cancer research from the time she was 15 years old. Four years later, after graduating with the highest undergraduate honors in chemistry from Hunter College she found her path was going to be more difficult than she expected. Over a dozen institutes rejected her application for graduate school because of her gender so Elion ended up working as an unpaid lab assistant until hired by the pharmaceuticals company Burroughs Wellcome. While there she developed 6-mercaplopurine used in chemotherapy to treat children with leukemia, an invention that won her the Nobel Prize. She was also involved in the research of Imuran, which aids the body in accepting transplanted organs, and Zovirax, which is used to fight herpes.
There are dozens, probably hundreds of women not included in this hub, each a pioneer in her own field, be that in the kitchen inventing chocolate chip cookies (for which I am eternally grateful to Ruth Wakefield) or in the lab as part of the team discovering nuclear fission like Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (overlooked for the Nobel prize because of her gender though as a consolation Element 109, meitnerium is named for her).
Whether you are a die hard feminist, a student of history or just a curious reader, I hope this little window into the works of female inventors will send some you out in search of more remarkable women, past and present.