There is an old adage that says “It’s a man’s world.” Maybe, maybe not. But there is one fact that can’t be denied; many of our creature comforts and life-saving devices, that we take for granted today, were invented by women.
We’ll probably never know how many women inventors there were. That’s because in the early years of the United States, a woman could not get a patent in her own name. A patent is considered a kind of property, and until the late 1800s laws forbade women in most states from owning property or entering into legal agreements in their own names. Instead, a woman’s property would be in the name of her father or husband.
For example, many people believe that Sybilla Masters was the first American woman inventor. In 1712 she developed a new corn mill, but was denied a patent because she was a woman. Three years later the patent was filed successfully in her husband’s name.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here are some inventions by women that may surprise you.
The Car Heater
We owe our thanks to Margaret A Wilcox who invented the car heater in 1893! (Margaret also invented a combined clothes and dishwasher)
This popular board game was designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1904, originally called the Landlord™Game. The purpose of this game was to expose the injustices of unchecked capitalism. Her game was ripped off by Charles Darrow who sold it to Parker Brother’s 30 years later. However Parker Brothers later paid Elizabeth $500 for her game.
The Fire Escape
The fire escape was invented by Anna Connelly in 1887. Often in fires of the day, the only direction people could travel was up (if staircases had burned or flames were licking at the lower floors). Connelly patented an iron railed bridge. Once people escaped to the rooftop, they could use the bridge to make their way to the next building and go to the ground within the neighboring building.
The Life Raft
The life-saving Life Raft was invented by Maria Beasely in 1882. (Maria also invented a machine that makes barrels)
Residential Solar Heating
Solar heating for residential housing was invented by Dr Maria Telkes in 1947. Dr. Telkes was a psychiatrist in addition to being a solar-power pioneer.
The Medical Syringe
The medical syringe, which could be operated with only one hand, was invented by Letitia Geer in 1899.
In the days before the delete key, secretary Bette Nesmith Graham secretly used white tempera paint to cover up her typing errors. She spent years perfecting the formula in her kitchen before patenting Liquid Paper in 1958. Gillette bought her company in 1979 for $47.5 million.
The Modern Electric Refrigerator
The electric refrigerator was invented by Florence Parpart in 1914 (Florence also invented an improved street cleaning machine in addition to the refrigerator)
The Barbie Doll
Perhaps one of the most famous toys in American history, the Barbie doll is a staple in the toy chests of little girls everywhere. Along with co-founding the renowned toy company, Mattel, woman inventor Ruth Handler also designed the doll that would become an American cultural icon.
Marion Donovan didn’t take all the mess out of diaper changing when she patented the waterproof Boater in 1951. But she changed parenting—and well, babies—forever. The waterproof diaper cover, originally made with a shower curtain, was first sold at Saks Fifth Avenue. Donovan sold the patent to the Keko Corporation for $1 million and then created an entirely disposable model a few years later. Pampers was born in 1961.
The Ice Cream Maker
The ice cream maker was invented by a woman named Nancy Johnson in 1843. Her patented design is still used today!
The Coffee Filter
The very first coffee filters didn’t come from Italy – they came from the mind of a German inventor, Melitta Benz in 1908. She experimented with her son’s blotting paper and a brass pot with holes punched in it, and the result was so successful that today, Melitta Ltd., her family company, is one of the world’s biggest filter companies.
The Computer Algorithm
Ada Lovelace is essentially the first computer programmer due to her work with Charles Babbage at the University of London in 1842. In fact her notes were an essential key to helping Alan Turings work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
In 1930, while making a batch of cookies that required melted chocolate for a guest, Ruth Wakefield found she’d run out of baker’s chocolate. She conveniently substituted the recipe with a crushed Nestles chocolate bar, the pieces of chocolate held their shape and became an accidental hit!
Some of the telecommunication technology developed by Dr. Shirley Jackson include portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.
The dishwasher was invented by Josephine Cochrane in 1887. Before her time, she even marketed her machine to hotel owners and even opened her own factory without the help of a man!
Wireless Transmission Technology
Hedy Lamarr, a world famous film star, invented a secret communications system during World War II for radio-controlling torpedoes. This technology also paved the way for everything from Wi-Fi to GPS.
Closed-Circuit Television Security (CCTV)
Marie Van Brittan Brown invented CCTV because of the slow response of police officers in 1969 to help people ensure their own security. This invention influenced modern CCTV systems used for home security and police work today.
The Modern Paper Bag
Margaret Knight invented a machine that makes square bottomed paper bags in 1871. She almost didn’t get credit when Charles Anan tried to steal her work claiming that it wasn’t possible for a woman to create this brilliant invention. (Margaret also invented a safety device for cotton mills when she was 12, that is still being used today).
Although Alice Parker’s invention in 1919 of a gas powered central heater was never manufactured, her idea was the first that allowed for using natural gas to heat a home, inspiring the central heating systems used today.
Apparently, it takes a stain to fight one. In 1952, 3M chemist Patsy Sherman was perplexed when some fluorochemical rubber spilled on a lab assistant’s shoe and wouldn’t come off. Without changing the color of the shoe, the stain repelled water, oil, and other liquids. Sherman and her co-inventor Samuel Smith called it Scotchguard.
Martha Coston was officially listed as “administratix” on the 1961 patent that revolutionized communication between US Navy vessels. Official credit for the invention went to her husband, Benjamin Franklin Coston—never mind that he had been dead for the 10 years she had worked with pyrotechnic engineers to turn his idea into a reality. (She received a patent in her own name, 12 years later, for a modified system.)
Folding Cabinet Bed
Sarah E. Goode’s folding cabinet bed didn’t just maximize space in small homes. In 1885, it made her the first African-American woman with a U.S. patent. The fully-functional desk could be used by day and then folded down for a good night’s sleep. The Murphy bed came along some 15 years later.
This life-saving material that is 5 times stronger than steel and used to make bulletproof vests was invented in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek.
Dr. Grace Murray Hopper was the computer scientist that invented COBOL, which is the first user-friendly business computer software system in the 1940’s. She was also a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and the first person to use the term “bug” in reference to a glitch in a computer system when she literally found a bug (moth) causing problems with her computer.
The Submarine Telescope
It’s difficult to find any in-depth information about early inventor Sarah Mather. Her combination telescope and lamp for submarines, patented in 1845, speaks for itself.
The Windshield Wiper
Drivers were skeptical when Mary Anderson invented the first manual windshield wipers in 1903. They thought it was safer to drive with rain and snow obscuring the road than to pull a lever to clear it. (Another woman inventor, Charlotte Bridgwood, invented an automatic version with an electric roller in 1917. It didn’t take off, either.) But by the time Anderson’s patent expired in 1920, windshield wipers were cleaning up. Cadillac was the first to include them in every car model, and other companies soon followed.
The Circular Saw
A weaver named Tabitha Babbitt was the first to suggest that lumber workers use a circular saw instead of the two-man pit saw that only cut when pulled forward. She made a prototype and attached it to her spinning wheel in 1813. Babbitt’s Shaker community didn’t approve of filing a patent, but they took full advantage of the invention.
Retractable Dog Leash
New York City dog-owner Mary A. Delaney patented the first retractable leading device in 1908. It attached to the collar, keeping pooches under control, while giving them some freedom to roam.
And, last, but hardly least…
Beer historian Jane Peyton claims that ancient Mesopotamian women were the first to develop, sell, and even drink beer. While it may be hard to pin down exactly who, thousands of years ago, “invented” the beer we know and love today, it’s safe to say that ancient women all over the world were sure as hell fermenting something. So next time you raise a glass, make a toast to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing and beer!
The information for this article was gathered from a number of websites detailing the many accomplishments made by women.