We’re used to hear about inventions or discoveries made by men more than those made by women.
However, although systematically hampered for centuries, women have contributed their fair share of cutting-edge inventions, many of which we use every day without any thought to their origins.
From kevlar to spread spectrum technology, some of the most brilliant inventions have been made by women.
Mary Anderson made an essential contribution to the world of cars by inventing the windshield wiper. She did not drive a car herself, but on a visit to New York, she happened to be riding a streetcar on a snowy day and observed that the streetcar driver had to stick themselves out, again and again, to clean off the windshield.
Naturally, that caused delays, and got Anderson wondering: What if there were some sort of blade that could wipe off the windshield without making the driver get out of the streetcar?
As a result, she invented a device that operated with a lever and could be used by the driver. The device was patented in 1903.
In the beginning, people were skeptical about its use and felt that it might distract the driver. Companies were reluctant to invest in the device. But eventually, it became standard in all vehicles.
Anderson never received any money for her invention in her life. She did finally get some credit in 2011 when she was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Patricia Billings is a sculptor, inventor, and businesswoman who invented Geobond, a building material that is fire-proof and nearly indestructible.
Billings studied art and specialized in plaster of Paris sculptures. In the late 1970s, one of her sculptures fell and shattered, so she began experimenting in her basement. Eight years later, she invented an additive that, when mixed with gypsum and concrete, creates a very hard, non-toxic, fire-proof plaster.
Billings has two patents for her work, but has kept the complete recipe for Geobond a secret. Meanwhile, contractors use Geobond every day.
Sally Fox is a cotton breeder who breeds naturally colored varieties of cotton. She is the inventor of FoxFibre, hailed as the first species of long-fiber naturally-colored cotton that can be spun into thread on a machine.
Naturally colored cotton has existed for centuries in the wild. And Fox, a long-staple variety that could be milled into a variety of textiles, including denim could considerably reduce the amount of pollution created through dyeing textiles.
As electric typewriters came into widespread use after World War II, Bette Nesmith Graham and countless other secretaries had a big problem — while the new machines made typing easier, their carbon-film ribbons made it impossible to correct mistakes neatly with a pencil eraser.
Graham wanted a solution to the problem, and found it by watching painters decorating the bank windows for the holidays. The painters covered any imperfections with an additional layer. Graham mimicked their technique by using a white, water-based tempera paint to cover her typing errors.
She was soon flooded with requests for what she initially called “Mistake Out” and was soon working full-time to produce and bottle it. Her son Michael — who would later become a member of the pop group The Monkees — helped to fill the growing number of orders.
Graham continued to improve the formula and renamed the product “Liquid Paper” in 1958 and the rest is history.
Dr. Mary Temple Grandin became well known for her trailblazing work as a spokesperson for people with autism and for her lifelong work with animal behavior.
Her autism informed her work with animals and her design of humane ways to bring animals to the slaughterhouse. Today, her inventions are used in slaughterhouses around America and the world.
Margaret Knight was a self-taught engineer who, at the age of 13, devised a shuttle restraint system for use in mills that would spare countless workers serious injury.
While working at the Columbia Paper Bag company, based in Springfield, Massachusetts, she developed an automated mechanism to fold paper bags — a process which up to that time was done by hand.
She filed for a patent, but faced a challenge when a man named Charles Annan stole her idea. However, she successfully fought and won a lawsuit against him and was granted her patent.
Stephanie Louise Kwolek was an American chemist who worked at the DuPont company, where she discovered the first of a family of synthetic fibers of exceptional strength and stiffness: poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide. While working with these fibers, she went on to invent Kevlar, a very strong, lightweight, and heat resistant fiber.
Gilbreath is well-known for her work in the field of ergonomics, including ideas such as inserting shelves in the refrigerator to make it more efficient. Similarly, she made can openers easier, and she also invented the foot-operating pedal for opening trash cans.
Marion O’Brien Donovan was an American inventor and entrepreneur who is best known for developing the first waterproof disposable diaper, which earned her $1 million and election to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.
Donovan was a prolific inventor, eventually earning a total of 20 patents, for things such as a pull cord for zipping up a dress with a back zipper, a combined check and record-keeping book, and a new kind of dental floss device.
Josephine Cochrane was a socialite who set out to create the dishwasher after noticing that her fine china would chip when it was scrubbed in the sink.
She worked out a design that used water jets and a dishrack to hold the dishes in place. Working in a shed behind her home, Cochrane constructed the first machine herself, patenting her design in 1886.
She established Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company, and won an award for her design at the Chicago World’s Fair. The machines initially sold to restaurants and hotels, but their domestic use surged in the 1950s. Cochrane’s company eventually became KitchenAid, now part of the Whirlpool Corporation.
Elizabeth J. Phillips was an American game designer, writer, and feminist. She invented The Landlord’s Game, the precursor to Monopoly, to illustrate the teachings of the progressive economist Henry George. The game was intended to focus on all the injustice that results from unchecked capitalism.
Her game was later redesigned and sold as Monopoly — making its owner Parker Brothers millions.
Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician who is chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Lovelace developed ways to use mathematical algorithms with the Analytical Engine to carry out an early form of computer programming.
Grace Hopper was an American Navy rear admiral and a computer scientist. She worked on the Harvard Mark I computer and can easily be considered a pioneer of computer programming.
She invented a computer programming system that used instructions written in a language that is human-friendly. She ultimately invented the compiler, a program that can translate a set of instructions from English into a language that the computer can use.
Hedy Lamarr was an American film actress who went on to invent Spread Spectrum Technology. After Lamarr emigrated to the United States from Austria, she had a very successful film career, and also became a pioneer in wireless communications.
During World War II, Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes could be easily jammed so that they veered off course. She conceived of the idea of creating a frequency-hopping signal to prevent jamming. Along with her friend, pianist George Antheil, she developed a device.
Lamarr received a patent for her invention, which she called “Frequency hopping.” The technology is now widely used in wireless-communication technology ranging from G.P.S. to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is an American physicist, the first African-American woman to have earned a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the second African-American woman in the US to earn a doctorate in physics.
Jackson invented call waiting and Caller ID while working at AT&T Bell Labs, where she conducted research in theoretical physics, solid state and quantum physics, and optical physics.
Olga D. González-Sanabria is an American engineer working at NASA Glenn Research Center, where she is responsible for planning and directing a number of integrated services. She played an instrumental role in the development of the Long Cycle-Life Nickel-Hydrogen batteries, which are used to power the International Space Station.
Marie Van Brittan Brown was an American inventor who, together with her husband, invented the home security system. She often worked late, and was concerned by the high crime rate in her neighborhood and by how long it took the police to arrive. Marie first created three peepholes and set up a camera that could adjust from peephole to peephole. She then used a radio-controlled wireless system to stream the video to any television in the house.
The couple also created a two-way microphone system to allow communication between the family and the person at the door, and a system that contacted police and emergency responders with just the tap of a button.
Ann Tsukamoto is an inventor and stem cell researcher. While working at SyStemix in the early 1990s, Tsukamoto was part of a team that made a vital breakthrough in cancer research when they isolated blood-forming stem cells. Altogether, Tsumamoto holds 12 patents related to human hematopoietic stem cells, pancreatic stem cells, and neural stem cells
Anna Connelly invented and patented the first outdoor fire escape in 1887. Connelly’s design made buildings safer by preventing people from falling in the panic of an emergency. Her design also allowed firefighters to more easily haul water to specific areas of the structure.
Her invention led to some of the first building codes in New York City, which required a second means of egress from buildings in the event of an emergency.
Do you like chocolate chip cookies? Who doesn’t! You have Ruth Wakefield to thank for their invention. She was a chef, educator, and dietician who owned the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts.
In 1930, she created the Toll House cookie, but breaking up a bar of Nestle chocolate and adding it to the dough. The Inn was already serving a popular butterscotch cookie, and she wanted to create a second option.
Dr. Maria Telkes was a Hungarian-American biophysicist, scientist, and inventor who worked on solar energy technologies. She is considered one of the founders of solar thermal storage systems.
She was a prolific inventor and developed a miniature desalination unit for use on lifeboats. The unit used solar power and condensation to collect potable water, saving the lives of many airmen and sailors. She also helped create the very first solar-heated home in 1940, when she was working at MIT on the Solar Energy Research Project.
Marie Curie is probably one of the best-known physicists. She is remembered for her discovery of radium and polonium. In 1903 Marie and her husband Pierre were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics jointly with Henri Becquerel for their separate work on radioactivity.
In 1911, she won a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for creating a means of measuring radioactivity. She oversaw the building of the first radium institute for the study of radioactivity and for biological research into the treatment of cancer.
During the First World War, Curie developed small, mobile X-ray units that could be used to diagnose injuries near the battlefront.
Nancy Johnson invented the hand-cranked, ice cream churn as a time-saving device. At the time, ice cream was made using the ‘pot freezer’ method, which took a long time and often resulted in lumpy ice cream. Johnson created a device that used hand-cranked spatulas inside a cylinder to scrape ice crystals from the walls of the cooled container.
She patented the design, and her churn is still used today for making ice cream by hand. Let’s take a moment to thank Nancy for all the ice creams we enjoy today!
Maria Beasley was an entrepreneur and inventor who is best known for her barrel-making machines and her improvements to the life raft. In all, she held fifteen different patents in the US, along with two in Great Britain
These 24 women are evidence of the amazing contributions of women to science and technology. However, they are only a handful of the many great, and often unsung, female inventors.