10 of History's Greatest Women Inventors You Should Know

Design News is honoring some of history's most prominent female inventors.
  • Did you know a Hollywood actress revolutionized wireless communications? Or that the first computer programmer was a woman? Many of these women didn't get credit for their work until long after their deaths, but their contributions and inventions have shaped technologies that have changed our lives and the course of history.

    Click through the slideshow to meet 10 of history's greatest female inventors.

  • Mary Anderson (1866–1953) and Charlotte Bridgewood (1861 – 1929) – Windshield Wipers

    Two women deserve credit for the windshield wiper as we know it today. In the 1903, while visiting New York City in the winter, Mary Anderson noted that drivers rode around with both panes of their vehicle's double front window open because of how hard it was to keep sleet and snow off of the windshield. Upon returning to her home in Alabama, Anderson hired a designer and invented a manual windshield wiper system for cars. Her device (shown) consisted that a spring-loaded arm that was controlled by a manual lever to move across the windshield.

    Anderson received a patent for her invention in 1903, but she couldn't give the things away. None of the auto companies thought it was practical. Strangely enough though, in 1920, after her 17-year patent expired, cars began springing up all over the place using a windshield wiper design strikingly similar to Anderson's.

    During this time, a woman named Charlotte Bridgewood, a Hollywood actress who performed under the name Lotta Lawrence built upon Anderson's work and patented the Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner – the first automatic windshield wiper. Brigewood's device was powered by the car's engine and used rubber rollers instead of blades. Unfortunately, issues with her patent kept her from claiming full credit for her invention and she lost out on a fortune as autos adopted automatic wipers as a standard.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) - “Invisible” Glass

    Katharine Burr Blodgett was a research scientist and the first woman to work as a scientist for General Electric Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y. Working alongside a chemist named Irving Langmuir in 1953, Blodgett developed a method to spread monomolecular coatings one at a time onto glass or metal. When this method was applied to glass it made the material transparent (or “invisible”). This type of nonreflective coating is now called Langmuir-Blodgett film and is widely used today in variety of industries including aerospace, optics, and even filmmaking. The first film production to use camera with Blodgett's glass was Gone With the Wind.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Josephine Cochrane ( 1839-1913) – The Dishwasher

    As the story goes, Josephine Cochrane was so fed up with her servants breaking her dishes that she decided to start washing them herself...then she realized why she had servants doing it in the first place – washing dishes is a pain in butt. Why couldn't someone invent some sort of machine to do this, she thought.

    Well, if you want something done, sometimes you have to do it yourself. Calling upon a local mechanic, George Butters, for assistance, Cochrane decided to design and build her own dish washing machine in the shed behind her home in Shelbyville, Ill. Other unsuccessful attempts at a dishwasher had been made prior to Cochrane's work, but she was the one who finally got it right. Her machine featured compartments designed to fit specific dishware (cups, plates, saucers, ect.) and a motor-spun wheel that squirted soapy water up onto the dishes.

    Cochrane debuted her invention in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where it was an instant hit. Following a patent, Cochrane opened her first dishwasher factory, Garis-Cochrane in 1897 (Butters became an employee there). Cochrane continud to sell dishwashers personally up to her death in 1913 and by the 1950s the dishwasher was a staple in modern homes. In 1916, Garis-Cochrane was acquired by Hobart, a company that has since changed its name to the familiar Whirlpool Corporation.

    (Image source: The Robinson Library)

  • Letitia Geer (1853-1935) - The Medical Syringe

    Outside of patent documents (shown), little to no biographical information is available on Leticia Geer. However her contributions helped establish one of the world's most prominent medical devices and arguably revolutionized healthcare forever. During the late 1800s several innovations came about that led to the medical syringe becoming what it is today. In 1844, an Irish physician named Franic Rynd invented the hollow needle. Then, in 1853 two men – Charles Pravaz and Alexander Wood – created a medical hypodermic syringe with a needle fine enough to pierce skin. But it was a woman from New York named Letitia Mumford Geer who made the syringe viable across medical fields. In 1899 she patented a “In a hand-syringe the combination of a cylinder, a piston and an operating-rod which is bent upon itself to form a smooth and rigid arm terminating in a handle, which, in its extreme positions, is located within reach of the fingers of the hand which holds the cylinder, thus permitting one hand to hold and operate the syringe...” Geer's one-handed design became the standard for syringes in medicine and forever changed the way doctors deliver medications.

    (Image source: Google Patents)

  • Grace Hopper (1906-1992) – COBOL Programming Language

    Rear Admiral Grace Hopper held a master's degree in mathematics from Yale and served in the US Navy during World War II. After the war she became a naval reserve officer and worked at Harvard as a research fellow, working with early Mark II and Mark III computers.

    In 1949 she moved into private industry, eventually landing at Remington Rand, where she oversaw programming for the UNIVAC computer. It was at Remington Rand that Hopper and her team developed the first computer language compiler, which would become a precusor to the widely popular Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) programming language – known at the time of its release as being very user friendly and easy to adopt.

    Later in her life Hooper was a staunch advocate for international standardization of computer languages (a move that helped languages like COBOL proliferate). She is also credited with popularizing the terms “debugging” and “computer bug” during her time at Harvard, where she often found herself literally removing live moths that had wandered into the giant machines.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Dr. Shirley Jackson (1946 – Present) – Telecommunications Technology

    In 1973 Shirley Jackson became the first black woman to receive a Ph.D from MIT (her degree is in theoretical elementary particle physics). In 1976 she joined the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories where she researched various materials and helped make breakthroughs that have formed the basis of most modern telecommunications technologies. At Bell Labs, Jackson's research revolved primarily around studying the optical and electronic properties of semiconductors. She has authored, or co-authored over 100 scientific articles and her research into subatomic particle has led to the inventions and innovations around the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology that enables caller ID and call waiting. Currently Jackson is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. She was the first woman and the first African American to hold this position.

    (Image source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

  • Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014) – Kevlar

    Stephanie Kwolek was an American chemist who spent most of her career working for DuPont. In 1964, she was a part of a team charged with developing a lightweight, yet strong fiber that could be used in tires. The idea was to lighten vehicles in anticipation of an oncoming gasoline shortage. While conducting experiments Kwolek stumbled onto a new fiber created from poly-p-phenylene terephthalate and polybenzamide. The result of her work was a polymer stronger than nylon and also five times stronger than steel by weight. Chemists call it poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, but it is better known by its household name – Kevlar. Kwolek's Kevlar material debuted in 1971 and since has become a staple in a variety of products ranging from sports equipment to, most notably, bulletproof vests.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) – Spread Spectrum Technology

    If you recognize Hedy Lamarr's name it's probably from her career as a Hollywood actress in a number of films throughout the 1930s and '40s including Boom Town, Tortilla Flat, Samson and Delilah. It has also been claimed she was the original pick for the female lead in Casablanca.

    But Hedy Lamarr had another claim to fame outside of the limelight. When she wasn't acting she spent a great deal of her spare time tinkering and inventing in her home workshop. With World War II in full swing, Lamarr looked for a way that she could contribute to the war effort. She found it when, with the help of a composer friend named George Antheil, she designed and patented a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology for use with radio-controlled torpedoes. Lamarr and Antheil realized that using radio waves made the torpedo signals easy to jam. Creating a system that would continually change the radio signals sent to the torpedo would fix that.

    Their system worked similarly to a piano roll to change the radio signal and the Lamarr and Antheil were granted a patent in 1942. However the US Navy didn't immediately take notice – preferring to not to accept inventions from civilians. It wasn't until 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that Lamarr's invention got a fair look.

    It turned out she may have been far ahead of her time. Her spread spectrum system became integral to developing security wireless communications and has become a key design element in cellular, WiFi and Bluetooth communications.

    In 2014, Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) – The First Computer Program

    The name Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, has such a storied history in computer science that there's even a programming language named after her. A mathematician and writer, Lovelace is best known for her work with Charles Babbage, inventor of the Analytical Engine – an early mechanical general-purpose computer, whom she met at the age of 17. While translating a transcript of one of of Babbage's lectures, Lovelace added her own thoughts. Included in her notes was a description of an algorithm that would allow Babbage's Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. Lovelace's notes weren't widely spread until they were discovered and republished in the 1950s, but her algorithm is considered to be the first computer program...thus making her the first computer programmer by extension. Lovelace's program was never tested, however in her notes she also described a theoretical method of getting the Engine to repeat a series of instructions. Programmers today know this as looping and anyone who's used something like an ELSE/IF in their coding has Lovelace to thank.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Maria Telkes (1900-1995) – Solar-Powered House

    Maria Telkes was a prolific inventor who specialized in thermal devices and worked in solar energy research at MIT from 1939 to 1953. In August 1950, MIT, already sensing a growing need for alternative, green energy – held a symposium titled, “Space Heating with Solar Energy.” The highlight of the symposium was the Dover House – a project by Telkes and her associate, Eleanor Raymond, an architect from Boston. The Dover House was the first home to be heated by solar energy. Built in 1948 for about $20,000, the home in Dover, Mass collected sunlight through panels of glass and metal insulated with Glauber’s salt– a sodium sulfate decahydrate that is very efficient at storing heat (seven times more than water). Air from the home's ventilation system would collect heat given off by the salt as it was cooled by cold temperatures.

    Telkes' project lasted for two and a half years before corrosion issues with the salt ruined the heating system. Telkes never built another solar-heated house but the legacy of her research lives on. As she was quoted as saying at the symposium, “The problem of the sun-heated house cannot be solved by one or two experimental houses...But each new house is another experimental stepping stone toward the use of the sun as a fuel resource.”

    (Image source: Public Domain)


Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.


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