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 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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.