Da Vinci. Pasteur. Edison. Tesla. Generally behind every popular invention is a famous and celebrated male inventor. There’s no doubt that these gents have made significant contributions to science and technology.
But this week as I was driving through a torrential downpour to the supermarket to curb my sweet tooth cravings, I was grateful for the genius of two particular inventors: Mary Anderson and Nancy Johnson.
Mary Anderson invented the windscreen wiper, which has enabled me to survive driving through many a Brisbane summer storm. And I’ll be forever grateful to Nancy Johnson for bringing icecream to the masses with her revolutionary hand-cranked icecream churner. Kudos ladies.
In the spirit of International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to celebrate and appreciate the ingenuity and resourcefulness of some kick ass female inventors throughout history.
This lady was as savvy as she was fashionable. When hats and bonnets were all the rage, Kies invented a new technique for weaving straw with silk or thread. Taking advantage of the relatively new Patent Act of 1790, Kies became the first woman to be granted a US patent in 1809. This was a notable achievement at the time, given that women could not legally own property. Kies’ patented method was widely adopted and received high praise from US First Lady Dolley Madison, who publicly thanked Kies for boosting the US hat economy.
In today’s terms, Margaret Knight would be considered a serial entrepreneur. Knight received 27 patents in her lifetime, for a range of inventions including a dress and skirt shield to protect garments from sweat stains, shoe-manufacturing machines, a rotary engine and an internal combustion engine. But retailers and shoppers everywhere can thank Knight for her contribution to retail therapy. She invented a machine that manufactured flat-bottomed paper bags – which could carry more shopping than the usual envelope style bags.
When attempting to patent her machine, she discovered that the ungentlemanly Charles Annan had stolen her idea and patented it himself. Knight successfully filed a lawsuit against Annan and was awarded a patent in 1871. While Knight had legit evidence that the invention rightfully belonged to her, Annan’s counter argument was simply that a woman couldn’t have designed such an innovative machine. Classy gent.
If there’s anyone worthy of #womancrushwednesday admiration it’s Marie Curie. She discovered radioactivity (a term that she invented), developed techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, discovered two elements, polonium and radium, and developed mobile X-ray units for use during WWI. Her pioneering work lay the groundwork for the development of modern day nuclear medicine.
Bonus facts for your next quiz night: Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in different scientific fields.
Anyone looking for inspo to Code Like A Girl, meet Ada Lovelace – the world’s first computer programmer. Ada was a brilliant mathematician, a skill that was recognised by Cambridge mathematics professor, Charles Babbage. He commissioned Lovelace to translate a French article about his mechanical general-purpose computer called the “Analytical Engine”. In the translation, Lovelace added her own detailed explanatory notes about the functionality and potential applications of the machine, including an algorithm for the machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. The girl could code.
Washing dishes and saving relationships since 1886. The humble dishwasher is one of the hardest working appliances in your house. Ironically, Josephine Cochrane invented and patented her dishwasher out of frustration with the impractical hand cranked dish washing machines available at the time. She famously stated: “If nobody else is going to invent a dish washing machine, I’ll do it myself.” Her machine was the first practical dishwasher and used water pressure instead of scrubbers to clean the dishes. Her dishwasher was met with a lukewarm reception by the general public at the 1893 World’s Fair but was snapped up by hotels and restaurants. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the public really welcomed dishwashers and domestic bliss.
In the coffee hall of fame, Melitta Bentz is the real MVP. In 1908, the available coffee making options were less than ideal and the brews were bitter and gritty. Understandably p*ssed off with terrible coffee (as we all would be), she invented the first paper filter device using blotting paper with a hole punctured brass pot. Hello flavour town. Bentz patented her coffee filter system in 1908 and founded the Melitta coffee company, which still exists today.
Aside from her amazing contribution to the caffeinated world, Bentz was also an innovative boss lady. She implemented several work reforms including a 5-day work week (compared to the usual 6-day week at the time), Christmas bonuses, 15-days vacation, and a corporate social fund system called ‘Melitta Aid’.
Let’s be honest ladies, bras are annoying. But without Mary Phelps Jacob, we’d probably be stuck with a worse alternative, whale bone stiffened corsets. Frustrated and no doubt bloody uncomfortable with the stiff corsets, Jacob invented a lighter, more flexible undergarment that she called a “backless brassiere”. She patented her brassiere in 1914 and went on to sell her patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company. Over the next 30 years, the company made over $15 million dollars from sales of the patented bra product.
If Stephanie Kwolek had pursued a career in medicine, the world would not have Kevlar®. In 1946, Kwolek had accepted a job as a chemist DuPont hoping to earn enough money to attend medical school. But she shelved her plans to be a doctor to pursue her new-found passion for polymer science. In 1965, Kwolek unexpectedly discovered a liquid crystalline polymer solution that formed fibres of exceptional strength and stiffness. This discovery led to the development of Kevlar®, which was patented in 1966. Kevlar® has a wide range of applications including bulletproof vests, sports equipment, fiber-optic cables and building materials. DuPont awarded Kwolek the company Lavoisier Medal for her work and she remains the only female recipient of the award.
Parents everywhere have Marion Donovan to thank for the creation and convenience of the humble disposable nappy. Sick of changing dirty cloth diapers, clothing and bedding, Donovan created a waterproof nappy cover from a shower curtain. Her nappy design did away with nappy rash and dangerous safety pins, incorporating snap fasteners instead. Donovan patented her product in 1951 and named it the “Boater”. She sold her company and patents to Keko Corporation for $1 million dollars. Donovan went on to create a fully disposable paper nappy but received a soggy reception from manufacturers, who told her the product was impractical. Nearly a decade later, in 1961, an engineer by the name of Victor Mills drew inspo from Donovan’s paper nappy and Pampers® was born. In 2017, Pampers sales topped US$9 billion. Not bad for an impractical product.
Scientists had theorized the importance and potential of stem cells for medical research and therapy. But to study them, you first needed to isolate them. Cue Ann Tsukamoto. She contributed to the discovery and development of a method to isolate human stem cells. The method was patented in 1991 with Tsukamoto a co-patentee. Her discovery has enabled advancements in stem cell research for regenerative medicine and potential treatment of cancers and other diseases.
Here’s to celebrating the achievements and contributions of past, present and aspiring female inventors – not just today but beyond Women’s History Month.