8 Things You Didn't Know Were Invented by Women

By: Laurie-Anne Vazquez 03/10/2015 12:24PM
Category: Women in Science

When most people think of an inventor, they think of someone like Thomas Edison: a grizzled, older man, tinkering alone in a laboratory. It’s an ingrained archetype – but that doesn’t mean it’s true. The truth is that there have been many female inventors throughout history; it’s just difficult to tell exactly how many, thanks to restrictive laws. Until the late 1800s it was against the law for women to file patents in their own names, meaning everything they created would have been filed under their husband’s or father’s name. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t left us a wonderful legacy of products and technologies pivotal to modern living. Especially to the modern man.

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th 2015 and Women in Science March 8th – 24th, here are 8 of our favorite inventions by women.

Beer

Beer may be the cause of (and solution to) all of life’s problems according to Homer Simpson, but it is also beloved by men and women the world over. However, the drink actually has its roots with the female half of society: most ancient civilizations considered beer the provenance of goddesses, and the earliest recipe comes from a 3900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing. Due to the association of beer being a gift from women, only women were allowed to make and sell it (ancient Finland even made laws to keep brewing equipment under women’s ownership). The idea of women as creators and keepers of beer lasted until the Industrial Revolution created new methods of making the drink - but their contribution to its invention is undeniable. You’re welcome, gentlemen.

Kevlar

Kevlar is responsible for keeping both police officers and race car drivers safe; it’s the material in both bulletproof vests and crash helmets. Racing tires, too. While these applications may seem uber masculine, Kevlar was actually invented by a woman. Created by chemist Stephanie Kwolek at DuPont in 1965, the super-strong fibers are 5x stronger than steel – making them ideal for racing tires, where the material was first used. Kevlar is typically spun into rope or fabric sheets for use in everything from racing sails to mooring lines, but it can also be used a composite ingredient, as it is for modern drumheads – again, all items typically associated with men. Kwolek stumbled across the recipe by accident and while her team doubted its initial usefulness she was able to persuade the tech to test it, giving us the tough, versatile material we have today.

Windshield Wiper Blades

Anyone who’s ever had to drive through snow or rain has thanked their lucky stars for windshield wipers, and while a man invented the automobile we’ve all got Mary Anderson to thank for these. She visited New York City back in 1902 and observed a trolley driver keeping the front window open in order to keep the windshield clear of sleet. She filed for the patent in 1903, and while her model resembled earlier designs it was the first one to be effective. Unfortunately the patent only lasted for 17 years and she was unable to sell the right to her invention, keeping her from earning any profit when her basic design became standard in all automobile production in 1922. We’re still thankful for her ingenuity, though!

Airplane Muffler

Airplanes are another invention created by a man but perfected by a woman. The woman in this case was Eldorado Jones, a former teacher-turned-tinkerer who looked at an automobile muffler and realized it could also work for airplanes. She was granted the patent in 1923, but was unable to use that patent and develop her invention because she severely distrusted businessmen due to prior experiences. Her basic design has since been overhauled for use in exhaust systems in piston-powered engines.

The First Computer Algorithm

While the current discussions around computer science tend to revolve around the percentages of men and women in the field, let’s take a moment to remember that the very first computer programmer – who created the very first algorithm – was a woman. Not just any woman in fact, but Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron. Lovelace was a brilliant mathematician (thanks to her mother’s insistence on math and science education), and understood that numbers could be used to represent more than just quantities: they could represent data, as well. Lovelace found a kindred spirit in Cambridge professor Charles Babbage, and added notes to his theoretical paper for an Analytical Engine – the world’s first general purpose computer – before publication in 1843. She helped him see that a machine designed to read numbers could also be made to manipulate any data represented by those numbers. She even thought machines like that could compose music, produce graphics, and aid in scientific research... and she was proven right over 100 years later.

Buzz-Saw / Circular Saw

Power tools invoke thoughts of joy in certain people due to the combination of possibility and raw power that they offer, and the most admired one of all may be the circular saw. The saw’s unique blade was invented to simplify the process of converting logs into lumber, and it was invented by a woman. Shaker Tabitha Babbitt was a toolmaker and inventor, and as she watched men struggle to use a two-man whipsaw to cut down lumber in a mill, she noticed that half their motion was wasted – making the job twice as hard. She realized a round blade would be more efficient for the job and invented the first circular saw used in a saw mill in 1813. She didn’t patent her design partially due to her beliefs as a Shaker, but also because she wanted the machine to be as accessible as possible. Three years later, her design was patented by two men who read about it in the Shaker papers.

Wireless Transmissions Technology

Everyone loves wireless gadgets, and none of them would have been possible without the technology to support it. Thankfully, that technology was created by none other than a drop-dead gorgeous woman. Film star Hedy Lamarr hated being defined by her looks and strove to pursue different interests. She was granted that opportunity after a chance conversation with inventor George Anthiel which led to the development of a “Secret Communications System.” That system manipulated radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, creating an unbreakable code that helped American defeat the Nazis in WWII – and win the Cuban Missile Crisis. This “spread spectrum” system became the backbone of current wireless technology. We wouldn’t have cell phones or other wireless devices without it. Anthiel and Lamarr received a patent for the technology in 1941, and while Lamarr received little recognition for her efforts at the time, her status as a pioneer is now widely acknowledged.

Submarine Lamp And Telescope

Submarine warfare began during the Civil War. The key piece of technology that helped turn the tide of battle– a “submarine telescope” – was invented by a Brooklyn girl. Sarah Mather was granted a patent in 1845 for a “tube with a lamp attached to one end… so to be sunk in the water to illuminate objects therein, and a telescope to view said objects and make examinations under water.” This lamp had many uses, chief of which was to examine a boat’s hull without taking it out of water (a laborious, expensive process). Most important of all, this lamp was improved by Mather to such a degree that it could easily detect underwater Confederate activity during the Civil War. Today, her technology is the basis of underwater telescopes used to observe reefs and undersea habitats without disturbing the environment.

Honorable Mentions

LOTS Of Telecommunications Technology

Again, we have women to thank for our ability to use gadgets. Theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Jackson is the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D from MIT. She conducted research on electronics properties of semiconductors at Bell Laboratories that led to the invention of everything from the fax machine and telephone to fiber optic cables and caller ID.

Locomotive Chimney

Locomotive engines are monuments to the biggest legacy of the Industrial Revolution: the railways. While those were built by Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the locomotive chimney – the part responsible for reducing the environmental hazards of the smoke required to power it – was invented by Mary Walton. That system applied to industrial and residential chimneys as well. Walton also invented a system for reducing noise pollution produced by the elevated railway systems of New York City.

Liquid Paper

White-out is one of the most widely used office products of the 20th Century, and office workers everywhere have artist and typist Bessie Nesmith Graham to thank for it. Tired of having to retype pages on IBM’s new electric typewriter, Graham decided to find a more efficient alternative – and when she saw painters painting over their mistakes in the office she realized a white water-based tempura paint could work the same for paper.

Rotary Engine

The very first rotary engines were finicky, noisy things until Margaret Knight came along. She created the sleeve valve, a cover for internal combustion engines that helped increase efficiency. Often called the “most famous 19th century woman inventor,” Knight is perhaps better known for successfully suing the man who to stole her design and most famous patent, lending legal credibility to women inventors from then on. She invented many things in her life, including a paper bag making machine and a widely-used safety mechanism for cotton mills – the latter of which she invented when she was 12.

Residential Solar Heating

Solar power may be all the rage right now, but physicist and solar-power pioneer Dr. Maria Telkes is responsible for building the first solar-heated house back in 1947. She teamed up with architect Eleanor Raymond to make it, using a chemical that retained heat when crystallized to “store” the sun’s energy and then radiated it back to offer constant temperatures. Dr. Telkes continued to advocate and invent many solar powered technologies until her death in 1996.

We’ve got a full list of pivotal inventions created by women below. Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments!

CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF AWESOME INVENTIONS BY WOMEN:

  • (Ancient Mesopotamia circa 5th millennium B.C.) Beer
  • (18th Century) The first computer algorithm – Ada Lovelace
  • (1812) Circular Saw – Tabitha Babbitt
  • (1843) Ice cream maker – Nancy Johnson
  • (1845) Submarine lamp and telescope – Sarah Mather
  • (1850) Cotton mill safety mechanism – Margaret Knight
  • (1871) Paper bag making-machine – Margaret Knight
  • (1871) Maritime signal flares – Martha Coston
  • (1872) Dishwasher – Josephine Cochran
  • (1875) Globes – Ellen Fitz
  • (1879) Locomotive chimney – Mary Walton
  • (1882) Life raft – Maria Beaseley
  • (1882) Alphabet blocks – Adeline D.T. Whitney
  • (1887) Fire escape – Anna Connelly
  • (1887) The dishwasher – Josephine Cochran
  • (1881) Elevated railway – Mary Walton
  • (1891) Rolling pin – Catherine Deiner
  • (1892) Ironing Board – Sarah Boone
  • (1893) The car heater – Margaret Wilcox
  • (1899) Medical syringe – Letitia Geer
  • (1900) Street cleaning machine – Florence Parpart
  • (1903) Windshield wipers – Mary Anderson
  • (1903) Radioactive metals – Marie Curie
  • (1904) Monopoly – Elizabeth Magie
  • (1904) Rotary engine – Margaret Knight
  • (1914) Electric refrigerator – Florence Parpart
  • (1917) Electric hot water heater – Ida Forbes
  • (1917) Engine muffler – El Dorado Jones
  • (1919) Gas heating furnace, a precursor to central heating – Alice H. Parker
  • (1930) Chocolate chip cookies – Ruth Wakefield
  • (1941) Wireless transmission technology – Hedy Lamarr
  • (1947) Residential solar heating – Dr. Maria Telkes
  • (1950s) Computer software and the COBOL programming language – Dr. Grace Murray Hopper
  • (1950) Disposable diaper – Marion Donovan
  • (1951) Liquid paper – Bessie Nesmith Graham
  • (1952) Apgar tests, which evaluate baby’s health upon birth – Virginia Apgar
  • (1956) Scotchgard – Patsy O. Sherman
  • (1965) Snugli baby carrier – Ann Moore
  • (1966) Kevlar – Stephanie Kwolek
  • (1969) Closed-Circuit Television Security, or CCTV – Marie Van Brittan Brown
  • (1971) Computerized telephone switching system – Erna Schneider Hoover
  • (1978 – 1988) Telecommunications tech – Dr. Shirley Jackson
  • (1991) Stem cell isolation – Gail Martin, Ann Tsukamoto
  • (1997) Geobond – Patty Billings

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Posted on: 03/10/15 12:24PM
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Laurie-Anne Vazquez
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#MakePhysicsHappen @fiatphysica

“Fiat Physica shall hand the steering wheel of scientific innovation to the public, allowing them to contribute to science, communication, and discovery directly.”

Szabolcs Marka

Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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