Achievements and Inventions of Women in History

Julie Newmar
Julie Newmar, Hollywood legend and patent holder, speaks at Phoenix ComicCon in 2014.

 Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Before the 1970s, the topic of women in history was largely missing from general public consciousness. To address this situation, the Education Task Force on the Status of Women initiated a "Women's History Week" celebration in 1978 and chose the week of March 8 to coincide with International Women's Day. In 1987, the National Women's History Project petitioned Congress to expand the celebration to the entire month of March. Since then, the National Women's History Month Resolution has been approved every year with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

The First Woman to File an American Patent

In 1809, Mary Dixon Kies received the first U. S. patent issued to a woman. Kies, a Connecticut native, invented a process for weaving straw with silk or thread. First Lady Dolley Madison praised her for boosting the nation's hat industry. Unfortunately, the patent file was destroyed in the great Patent Office fire in 1836.

Until about 1840, only 20 other patents were issued to women. The inventions related to apparel, tools, cook stoves, and fireplaces.

Naval Inventions

In 1845, Sarah Mather received a patent for the invention of a submarine telescope and lamp. This was a remarkable device that permitted sea-going vessels to survey the depths of the ocean.

Martha Coston perfected then patented her deceased husband's idea for a pyrotechnic flare. Coston's husband, a former naval scientist, died leaving behind only a rough sketch in a diary of plans for the flares. Martha developed the idea into an elaborate system of flares called Night Signals that allowed ships to communicate messages nocturnally. The U. S. Navy bought the patent rights to the flares. Coston's flares served as the basis of a system of communication that helped to save lives and to win battles. Martha credited her late husband with the first patent for the flares, but in 1871 she received a patent for an improvement exclusively her own.

Paper Bags

Margaret Knight was born in 1838. She received her first patent at the age of 30, but inventing was always part of her life. Margaret or 'Mattie' as she was called in her childhood, made sleds and kites for her brothers while growing up in Maine. When she was just 12 years old, she had an idea for a stop-motion device that could be used in textile mills to shut down machinery, preventing workers from being injured. Knight eventually received some 26 patents. Her machine that made flat-bottomed paper bags is still used to this very day!

1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition

The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was a World Fair-like event held to celebrate the amazing progress of the century-old United States of America. The leaders of early feminist and women's suffrage movements had to aggressively lobby for the inclusion of a woman's department in the exposition. After some firm pressing, the Centennial Women's Executive Committee was established, and a separate Woman's Pavilion erected. Scores of women inventors either with patents or with patents pending displayed their inventions. Among them was Mary Potts and her invention Mrs. Potts' Cold Handle Sad Iron patented in 1870.

Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893 also included a Woman's Building. A unique safety elevator invented by multi-patent holder Harriet Tracy and a device for lifting and transporting invalids invented by Sarah Sands were among the many items featured at this event.

Traditionally women's undergarments consisted of brutally tight corsets meant to shape women's waists into unnaturally small forms. Some suggested that the reason women seemed so fragile, expected to faint at any time, was because their corsets prohibited proper breathing. Enlightened women's groups throughout the nation resoundingly agreed that less restrictive underclothing was in order. Susan Taylor Converse's one-piece flannel Emancipation Suit, patented August 3, 1875, eliminated the need for a suffocating corset and became an immediate success.

A number of women's groups lobbied for Converse to give up the 25-cent royalty she received on each Emancipation Suit sold, an effort that she rejected. Linking the 'emancipation' of women from constrictive undergarments to her own freedom to profit from her intellectual property, Converse responded: "With all your zeal for women's rights, how could you even suggest that one woman like myself should give of her head and hand labor without fair compensation?"

Perhaps it's a no-brainer that women inventors should turn their minds to making better the things that often concern women the most.

The Ultimate Home

The ultimate convenience invention must certainly be woman inventor Frances Gabe’s self-cleaning house. The house, a combination of some 68 time-, labor-, and space-saving mechanisms, makes the concept of housework obsolete.

Each of the rooms in the termite-proof, cinder block constructed, the self-cleaning house is fitted with a 10-inch, ceiling-mounted cleaning/drying/heating/cooling device. The walls, ceilings, and floors of the house are covered with resin, a liquid that becomes water-proof when hardened. The furniture is made of a water-proof composition, and there are no dust-collecting carpets anywhere in the house. At the push of a sequence of buttons, jets of soapy water wash the entire room. Then, after a rinse, the blower dries up any remaining water that hasn’t run down the sloping floors into a waiting drain.

The sink, shower, toilet, and bathtub all clean themselves. The bookshelves dust themselves while a drain in the fireplace carries away ashes. The clothes closet is also a washer/drier combination. The kitchen cabinet is also a dishwasher; simply pile in soiled dishes, and don’t bother taking them out until they are needed again. Not only is the house of practical appeal to overworked homeowners, but also to physically handicapped people and the elderly.

Frances Gabe (or Frances G. Bateson) was born in 1915 and now resides comfortably in Newberg, Oregon in the prototype of her self-cleaning house. Gabe gained experience in housing design and construction at an early age from working with her architect father. She entered the Girl’s Polytechnic College in Portland, Oregon at age 14 finishing a four-year program in just two years. After World War II, Gabe with her electrical engineer husband started a building repairs business that she ran for more than 45 years.

In addition to her building/inventing credits, Frances Gabe is also an accomplished artist, musician, and mother.

Fashion Forward

Fashion designer Gabriele Knecht realized something that clothes makers were neglecting in their clothing designs—that our arms come out of our sides in a slightly forward direction, and we work them in front of our bodies. Knecht’s patented Forward Sleeve design is based on this observation. It lets the arms move freely without shifting the whole garment and allows clothes to drape gracefully on the body.

Knecht was born in Germany in 1938 and came to America when she was 10 years old. She studied fashion design, and in 1960, received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Knecht also took courses in physics, cosmology, and other areas of science that may seem unrelated to the fashion industry. Her broadened knowledge, however, helped her understand shapes and methods of pattern design. In 10 years she filled 20 notebooks with sketches, analyzed all the angles that sleeves can take, and made 300 experimental patterns and garments.

Although Knecht had been a successful designer for several New York companies, she felt she had more creative potential. Struggling to start her own business, Knecht met a buyer from Saks Fifth Avenue department store who liked Knecht’s designs. Soon she was creating them exclusively for the store, and they sold well. In 1984 Knecht received the first annual More Award for the best new designer of women’s fashions.

Carol Wior is the woman inventor of the Slimsuit, a swimsuit "guaranteed to take an inch or more off the waist or tummy and to look natural." The secret to a slimmer look in the inner lining that shapes the body in specific areas, hiding bulges and giving a smooth, firm appearance. The Slimsuit comes with a tape measure to prove the claim.

Wior was already a successful designer when she envisioned the new swimsuit. While on vacation in Hawaii, she always seemed to be pulling and tugging on her swimsuit to try to get it to cover properly, all the while trying to hold in her stomach. She realized other women were just as uncomfortable and began to think of ways to make a better swimsuit. Two years and a hundred trail patterns later, Wior achieved the design she wanted.

Wior began her designing career at only 22 years old in her parent's garage in Arcadia, California. With $77 and three sewing machines bought at auction, she made classic, elegant but affordable dresses and delivered them to her customers in an old milk truck. Soon she was selling to major retail stores and was quickly building a multi-million dollar business. At age 23, she was one of the youngest fashion entrepreneurs in Los Angeles.

Protecting the Children

When Ann Moore was a Peace Corps volunteer, she observed mothers in French West Africa carrying their babies securely on their backs. She admired the bonding between the African mother and child and wanted the same closeness when she returned home and had her own baby. Moore and her mother designed a carrier for Moore's daughter similar to those she saw in Togo. Ann Moore and her husband formed a company to make and market the carrier, called the Snugli (patented in 1969). Today babies all over the world are being carried close to their mothers and fathers.

In 1912, the beautiful soprano opera singer and actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lillian Russell, patented a combination dresser-trunk built solidly enough to remain intact during travel and doubled as a portable dressing room.

Silver Screen superstar Hedy Lamarr (Hedwig Kiesler Markey) with the help of composer George Antheil invented a secret communication system in an effort to help the allies defeat the Germans in World War II. The invention, patented in 1941, manipulated radio frequencies between transmission and reception to develop an unbreakable code so that top-secret messages could not be intercepted.

Julie Newmar, a living Hollywood film and television legend, is a women inventor. The former Catwoman patented ultra-sheer, ultra-snug pantyhose. Known for her work in films such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Slaves of Babylon, Newmar has also appeared recently in Fox Television's Melrose Place and the hit feature-film To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Love Julie Newmar.

Ruffles, fluted collars, and pleats were very popular in Victorian-era clothing. Susan Knox's fluting iron made pressing the embellishments easier. The trademark featured the inventor's picture and appeared on each iron.

Women have made many contributions to advance the fields of science and engineering.

Nobel Prize Winner

Katherine Blodgett (1898-1979) was a woman of many firsts. She was the first female scientist hired by General Electric’s Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York (1917) as well as the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Physics from Cambridge University (1926). Blodgett’s research on monomolecular coatings with Nobel Prize-winning Dr. Irving Langmuir led her to a revolutionary discovery. She discovered a way to apply the coatings layer by layer to glass and metal. The thin films, which naturally reduced glare on reflective surfaces, when layered to a certain thickness, would completely cancel out the reflection from the surface underneath. This resulted in the world’s first 100% transparent or invisible glass. Blodgett’s patented film and process (1938) has been used for many purposes including limiting distortion in eyeglasses, microscopes, telescopes, camera, and projector lenses.

Programming Computers

Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was one of the first programmers to transform large digital computers from oversized calculators into relatively intelligent machines capable of understanding "human" instructions. Hopper developed a common language with which computers could communicate called Common Business-Oriented Language or COBOL, now the most widely used computer business language in the world. In addition to many other firsts, Hopper was the first woman to graduate from Yale University with a Ph.D. in Mathematics, and in 1985, was the first woman ever to reach the rank of admiral in the US Navy. Hopper’s work was never patented; her contributions were made before computer software technology was even considered a "patentable" field.

Invention of Kevlar

Stephanie Louise Kwolek’s research with high-performance chemical compounds for the DuPont Company led to the development of a synthetic material called Kevlar which is five times stronger than the same weight of steel. Kevlar, patented by Kwolek in 1966, does not rust nor corrode and is extremely lightweight. Many police officers owe their lives to Stephanie Kwolek, for Kevlar is the material used in bulletproof vests. Other applications of the compound include underwater cables, brake linings, space vehicles, boats, parachutes, skis, and building materials.

Kwolek was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania in 1923. Upon graduating in 1946 from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) with a bachelor’s degree, Kwolek went to work as a chemist at the DuPont Company. She would ultimately obtain 28 patents during her 40-year tenure as a research scientist. In 1995, Kwolek was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Inventors & NASA

Valerie Thomas received a patent in 1980 for inventing an illusion transmitter. This futuristic invention extends the idea of television, with its images located flatly behind a screen, to having three-dimensional projections appear as though they were right in your living room. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, the illusion transmitter will be as popular as the TV is today.

Thomas worked as a mathematical data analyst for NASA after receiving a degree in physics. She later served as project manager for the development of NASA’s image-processing system on Landsat, the first satellite to send images from outer space. In addition to having worked on several other high-profile NASA projects, Thomas continues to be an outspoken advocate for minority rights.

Barbara Askins, a former teacher, and mother, who waited until after her two children entered school to complete her B. S. in chemistry followed by a Master’s degree in the same field, developed a totally new way of processing film. Askins was hired in 1975 by NASA to find a better way to develop astronomical and geological pictures taken by researchers. Until Askins’ discovery, these images, while containing valuable information, were hardly visible. In 1978 Askins patented a method of enhancing the pictures using radioactive materials. The process was so successful that its uses were expanded beyond NASA research to improvements in X-ray technology and in the restoration of old pictures. Barbara Askins was named National Inventor of the Year in 1978.

Ellen Ochoa’s pre-doctoral work at Stanford University in electrical engineering led to the development of an optical system designed to detect imperfections in repeating patterns. This invention, patented in 1987, can be used for quality control in the manufacturing of various intricate parts. Dr. Ochoa later patented an optical system which can be used to robotically manufacture goods or in robotic guiding systems. In all Ellen Ochoa has received three patents, most recently in 1990.

In addition to being a woman inventor, Dr. Ochoa is also a research scientist and astronaut for NASA who has logged hundreds of hours in space.

Inventing Geobond

Patricia Billings received a patent in 1997 for a fire resistant building material called Geobond. Billings’ work as a sculpture artist put her on a journey to find or develop a durable additive to prevent her painstaking plaster works from accidentally falling and shattering. After nearly two decades of basement experiments, the result of her efforts was a solution which when added to a mixture of gypsum and concrete, creates an amazingly fire resistant, indestructible plaster. Not only can Geobond add longevity to artistic works of plastic, but also it is steadily being embraced by the construction industry as an almost universal building material. Geobond is made with non-toxic ingredients which make it the ideal replacement for asbestos.

Currently, Geobond is being sold in more than 20 markets worldwide, and Patricia Billings, great grandmother, artist, and woman inventor remains at the helm of her carefully constructed Kansas City-based empire.

Women care and women care as inventors. Many female inventors have turned their skills on finding ways to save lives.

Invention of Nystatin

As researchers for the New York Department of Health, Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Brown combined their efforts to develop the anti-fungal antibiotic drug Nystatin. The drug, patented in 1957 was used to cure many disfiguring, disabling fungal infections as well as to balance the effect of many antibacterial drugs. In addition to human ailments, the drug has been used to treat such problems as Dutch Elm's disease and to restore water-damaged artwork from the effects of mold.

The two scientists donated the royalties from their invention, over $13 million dollars, to the nonprofit Research Corporation for the advancement of academic scientific study. Hazen and Brown were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994.

Fighting Disease

Gertrude Elion patented the leukemia-fighting drug 6-mercaptopurine in 1954 and has made a number of significant contributions to the medical field. Dr. Elion's research led to the development of Imuran, a drug that aids the body in accepting transplanted organs, and Zovirax, a drug used to fight herpes. Including 6-mercaptopurine, Elion's name is attached to some 45 patents. In 1988 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with George Hitchings and Sir James Black. In retirement, Dr. Elion, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991, continues to be an advocate for medical and scientific advancement.

Stem Cell Research

Ann Tsukamoto is co-patenter of a process to isolate the human stem cell; the patent for this process was awarded in 1991. Stem cells are located in bone marrow and serve as the foundation for the growth of red and white blood cells. Understanding how stem cells grow or how they might be artificially reproduced is vital to cancer research. Tsukamoto's work has led to great advancements in comprehending the blood systems of cancer patients and may one day lead to a cure for the disease. She is currently directing further research in the areas of stem cell growth and cellular biology.

Patient Comfort

Betty Rozier and Lisa Vallino, a mother and daughter team, invented an intravenous catheter shield to make the use of IVs in hospitals safer and easier. The computer-mouse shaped, polyethylene shield covers the site on a patient where an intravenous needle has been inserted. The "IV House" prevents the needle from being accidentally dislodged and minimizes its exposure to patient tampering. Rozier and Vallino received their patent in 1993.

After fighting breast cancer and undergoing a mastectomy in 1970, Ruth Handler, one of the creators of the Barbie Doll, surveyed the market for a suitable prosthetic breast. Disappointed in the options available, she set about designing a replacement breast that was more similar to a natural one. In 1975, Handler received a patent for Nearly Me, a prosthesis made of material close in weight and density to natural breasts.

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Bellis, Mary. "Achievements and Inventions of Women in History." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, July 31). Achievements and Inventions of Women in History. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Achievements and Inventions of Women in History." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).