Throughout history women have quietly been hard at work finding solutions to everyday problems as well making important discoveries in many fields like science, computers, and medicine. From Marie Curie, who was recognized the world over for discovering two new radioactive elements by the end of World War I, to Ann Tsukamoto who co-patented the process to isolate the human stem cell in 1991, female inventors have come from every walk of life.
Some inventors like Curie, overcame poor backgrounds to pursue their goals. Conversely, one woman found fame as a film star of the 40s and 50s before filing for a patent in 1941 with composer, George Antheil. Often regarded at that time as the most beautiful woman on the film screen, Hedy Lamarr starred in MGM films like Algeirs and Samson and Delilah. She and Antheil invented a telecommunications method that made radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam during World War II. Called frequency hopping, this method continues to be used in cell phones and other modern technology.
The long list of female inventors also includes twelve-year-old Rachel Zimmerman of Ontario Canada. Her 1980s software program, Blissymbol, which began as a school science fair project, offered non-speaking individuals and the physically disabled a system for pointing at various symbols which were translated into written language, allowing the user to communicate via e-mail.
While decades ago some women inventors received patents in very unexpected fields, like Hedy Lamarr, other women were thinking in terms of improving their daily routines with advanced ideas. Not all were the kind of inventions to dramatically alter a life, but nevertheless, it’s hard not to be grateful for discoveries like chocolate chip cookies! Here’s a list of inventions that may have impacted you in and around your own home.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Mrs. Field and Famous Amos are relative newcomers to cookie making compared to Ruth Wakefield. In 1930, Wakefield was mixing cookie batter for her tourist lodge called “Toll House Inn” when she ran out of ingredients and substituted broken Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate. She expected the result to be chocolate cookies but to her surprise, she had invented an entirely different brand. The chocolate chip cookies became popular and to this day still remain the most consumed cookie in America.
Scotchgardtm Stain Repellent
Patsy Sherman’s “ahha!” moment came when a co-worker at 3M Company accidentally splashed synthetic latex on her tennis shoes. It was observed that the look of the shoes wasn’t altered and water, oil and other liquids would not penetrate the fabric. This accident led to the 1956 development of the fabric stain repellent, Scotchgardtm.
Ruth Handler kept it all in the family when in 1959 she invented a doll named after her daughter. She followed that with another doll named for her son Ken. The Barbie Doll, designed as a fashion toy for teens, found a wider market than expected when it debuted at New York City’s American Toy Fair. A co-founder of Mattel, handler also received a patent for Nearly Me, a prosthesis close in density and weight to natural breasts. She designed the prosthesis after a fight with breast cancer resulted in a mastectomy.
Life was a little tougher before Mary Anderson came up with her device for cleaning windows. Riding a New York City streetcar, Anderson watched as the driver opened the car’s windows in order to see through the rain. Anderson set out to help drivers battling weather conditions like rain, sleet, and snow by inventing a swing arm device with a rubber blade. The driver operated the device with a lever from inside the vehicle. In 1916, windshield wipers became standard equipment on all cars in America.
If you get to relax after meals instead of washing your dishes in the sink, you have Josephine Cochran to thank. While Joel Houghton held the first patent for a machine, it left a lot to be desired and was reported to simply wet dishes. It was Cochran who developed an efficient hand operated mechanical machine that actually washed dishes clean in 1893! Interestingly, households didn’t get excited about the invention until the 1950s. Eventually, KitchenAid was founded by Cochran to manufacture her machines.
Marion Donovan developed disposable diapers as a follow up to her “Boater”, waterproof plastic. Fashioned from a shower curtain, Donovan designed the pants to be worn over a diaper to contain moisture. An inspired young mother, Donovan charged ahead with her idea for a diaper made from material that instead of containing moisture, would absorb it. The business world saw this product as one the general population could not afford and left Donovan to fend for herself. She did, and remarkably so by starting her own business. In 1949, another inventor added to the luxury of disposable diapers when he introduced a model that did not require pins and was shaped to conform to a baby’s bottom.
You wouldn’t expect to find Liquid Paper in the kitchen but that’s exactly where it originated, in Bette Nesmith Graham’s blender. A secretary by day, Graham had dreams of pursuing art but skimpy finances led her in another direction. A perfectionist at the typewriter, Graham was frustrated by the ineffective means available for correcting errors. Her knowledge of art reminded her that artists often painted over mishaps on the canvas. She applied that theory to the typewriter using a paint brush and tempura paint to match her paper. The name “Mistake Out” became a common term in the office among all the secretaries and Graham was their source for the product. After making a mistake that could not be corrected, Graham lost her job, allowing her more time to pursue what had become Liquid Paper. Her corporation manufactured 25 million bottles in 1976. Trivia: Graham’s son is Michael Nesmith of the Monkees.
Ever hear of the Ove Gloves? They are the perfect kitchen gloves because they won’t melt or catch fire. You also can’t accidentally cut them with a knife. Flexible enough to pick up coins, Kevlar allows you to grip hot pan handles without feeling the heat. It’s also the component in bullet-proof vests worn by police. Stephanie Kwolek was working at the DuPont Company in the 60s as a chemist researching high performance compounds when she discovered the attributes of what is now known as Kevlar. Five times stronger than steel, light in weight, and non corrosive, Kevlar can be found in many products including boats, skis, building materials, parachutes, underwater cables and space vehicles.