While much of the world is seen as a ‘man’s world’, there’s no doubt that women have had a huge influence in just every field in history, you just don’t tend to hear about it. I could have written about queens, warriors, suffragettes, and other well-known females who did make an influence on the world, however for this article I have opted for female inventors – most of who you won’t have heard of before – but whose inventions are largely everyday items, and in doing so have helped change the world we live in.
Caller ID and Call Waiting: Can’t say I’d thought about someone ‘inventing’ caller ID and call waiting, but obviously someone did, and that was Dr Shirley Ann Jackson. It was her research from the 1970’s that was responsible for it, and her breakthroughs in telecommunications also enabled others to invent the portable fax, fibre optic cables and solar cells.
Car Heater: In 1893 Margaret A. Wilcox invented the first car heater, which directed air from over the engine to warm the chilly toes of the upper class 19th century motorists. You’ll now think of this every time you turn on the car heater, while also being incredibly thankful as you thaw out on those cold mornings.
Central Heating: Back in 1919, Alice Parker invented a system of gas-powered central heating. While her design was never built, it was the first time an inventor had conceived of using natural gas to heat a home, and inspired the future central heating systems.
Chocolate Chip Cookies: Ruth Wakefield and her husband bought an old toll house outside of Boston with her husband. They converted the toll house into an inn with a restaurant. One day in 1930, Ruth was baking up a batch of Butter Drop Dough cookies for her guests, and the recipe called for melted chocolate, but she had run out of baking chocolate, so she took a Nestle chocolate bar, crumbled it into pieces and threw it into batter, expecting the chocolate pieces to melt during baking. Instead, the chocolate held its shape, and the chocolate chip cookie was born.
Circular Saw: In the late 18th century, a religious sect known as the Shakers emerged. Shakers valued living communally (albeit celibately), equality between the sexes and hard work. Tabitha Babbitt lived in a Shaker community in Massachusetts and worked as a weaver, but in 1810, she came up with a way to lighten the load of her brethren. She observed men cutting wood with a pit saw, which is a two-handled saw that requires two men to pull it back and forth. Though the saw is pulled both ways, it only cuts wood when it’s pulled forward; the return stroke is useless. To Tabitha that was simply wasted energy, so she created a prototype of the circular saw that would go on to be used in saw mills. She attached a circular blade to her spinning wheel so that every movement of the saw produced results. Because of Shaker rules, she didn’t apply for a patent for the circular saw she created.
Country Women’s Association of Australia (CWA): The Country Women’s Association is the largest women’s organisation in Australia. Formed in 1922 with with branches in New South Wales and Queensland, South Australia followed in 1926, By 1936 there was a branch in each State and Territory of Australia. The formation of a federal body happened in 1945. During the Depression years, the CWA helped those in need with food and clothing parcels.
Dishwasher Not so much of a surprise that a woman invented it really, but the reason behind it sure is. Josephine Cochrane, who received the patent for the first working dishwasher, didn’t spend that much time washing dishes. In fact the reason for her invention was frustration over her servants breaking her heirloom china after fancy dinners.
Disposable Nappies The first disposable nappy (diaper if you’re in the US) was invented in 1946 by Marion Donovan, a professional-turned-housewife who wanted to ensure her children’s cloth diapers remained dry while they slept. Donovan patented her design for a waterproof pocket to hold the nappy(called ‘Boaters’) in 1951. She also invented the first paper diapers, but executives did not invest in this idea and it was consequently scrapped for over ten years, until Procter & Gamble used Donovan’s design ideas to create Pampers.
DNA Double-Helix Structure It was Rosalind Franklin, a British molecular biologist, who was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1951. She was one of the key biologists who in 1953, published papers in the journal Nature on the structure of DNA, which resulted in National DNA Day being created.
The Fire Escape The first outdoor fire escape with an external staircase was patented by Anna Connelly in 1897, and in the 1900s, her model became part of many mandatory building safety codes across the United States, and later the world.
Home Security System Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the first home security system in the 1960s. She worked as a nurse and came up with the idea of a home security system after seeing the rising crime rates and slow police responses in her neighborhood in Queens, New York City.
Kevlar Stephanie Kwolek was one of the first women research chemists, and in 1965 she created the first of a family of synthetic fibers of exceptional strength and stiffness and is five times as strong as steel. Kevlar is the best-known member of this family, and is a material that is used in over 200 items, including protective vests as well as in boats, airplanes, skis, safety helmets, hiking and camping gear, suspension bridge cables – and much more. A life saving invention for sure.
Liquid Paper Bette Nesmith Graham, was a typist, artist, and became the founder of Liquid Paper. After getting frustrated making typos on her typewriter that she couldn’t fix, she tapped into her artistic background and created her own solution using fast-drying white paint and a watercolor brush. “Mistake Out,” as it was originally called, began in the 1960’s with orders shipped from her house. In 1979 she sold the Liquid Paper company to the Gillette Corporation for $47.5 million.
Meals on Wheels Meals on Wheels originated in the UK during the Blitz (1940), when many people lost their homes and therefore the ability to cook their own food. The Women’s Volunteer Service for Civil Defence (WVS, later WRVS) provided food for these people. The name “Meals on Wheels” came around as they were delivering meals to servicemen. The concept of delivering meals to those unable to prepare their own evolved into the modern concept that delivers mostly to the housebound elderly. Meals on Wheels was founded in Australia by Doris Taylor in 1953. Where would so many be without meals on Wheels? It is a fantastic concept, that helps out so many every single day.
Monopoly A man named Charles Darrow is often credited with creating the most popular board game in history, but the rules were actually invented by Elizabeth Magie. She patented “The Landlord’s Game” in 1904. The game of Monopoly that we know today was produced in 1935 by Parker Brothers, who discovered that Darrow was not the sole creator and had, for just US$500 bought Magie’s patent.
Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Vaccine Pioneering female American doctor, medical researcher and an outspoken voice in the pediatric community, Leila Alice Denmark (1898-2012) is credited as the developer of the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine in the 1930s. She was the world’s oldest practicing pediatrician until her retirement in May 2001 at the age of 103, after 73 years. She was a supercentenarian, living to the age of 114 years, 60 days.
Scotchgard Scotchgard the stain repellent and durable water repellent was co-invented by chemists Patsy Sherman and Samuel Smith while working for 3M, and came about as an accident. She says “we were trying to develop a new kind of rubber for jet aircraft fuel lines, when one of the lab assistants accidentally dropped a glass bottle that contained a batch of synthetic latex I had made. Some of the latex mixture splashed on the assistant’s canvas tennis shoes and the result was remarkable. Patsy Sherman and her colleague, Sam Smith observed that the spill would not wash off nor would solvent remove it. The area resisted soiling. They recognised the commercial potential of its application to fabrics during manufacture and by the consumer at home.” Wile Scotchgard was first sold in 1956, Patsy Sherman and Samuel Smith obtained a patent for in in 1973.
Square-Bottomed Paper Bag While Margaret Knight didn’t invent the paper bag , she did invent the “square-bottom” paper bag. She realised that paper bags should have a square bottom so that the weight was distributed across the base, allowing the bag to hold more things. In 1870 she created a wooden machine that would cut, fold and glue the square bottoms to paper bags. While she was working on an iron prototype of the machine to use for her patent application, she discovered that her design had been stolen by a man named Charles Annan, who had seen her wooden machine a few months earlier. She filed a patent interference suit against Annan, who claimed “that there was no way that a woman could have developed such a complex machine”. She used her notes and sketches to prove otherwise, and was granted the patent for the device in 1871.
Windscreen Wipers Another of those ‘everyday’ things we take for granted is windscreen wipers, and we have Mary Anderson to thank for that. She is credited for inventing the first functional windscreen wiper in 1903. While two other inventors, Robert Douglass and John Apjohn, also patented windscreen cleaning devices in the same year.
Written computer program A science and mathematical whiz from a young age, Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, is credited as being the person to have written instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s. During a nine-month period in 1842-43, Ada Lovelace translated the memoir of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea. She not only translated the original French text into English, but also added her own thoughts and ideas on the machine. Her notes ended up being three times longer than the original article. Her work was published in 1843, in an English science journal. This is recognised by many as the world’s first written computer program.
So as you can see, women are behind so many incredible inventions, many of which really did change the world. The above list is only a few of the long, long, list of amazing achievements that women have been a part of, and for Women’s History Month I wanted to share them to highlight their inventions.