Although sometimes underrated and overlooked, women have been responsible for scores of useful inventions that have changed the world. From life-saving medicines to groundbreaking innovations in rocket science, the following 20 creations are an inspiration to us all.
20. The Computer Algorithm
The world’s first algorithm was invented a century prior to modern computing by Lady Ada Lovelace, the fascinating daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron. Lovelace was a gifted mathematician prior to her untimely death, and her pioneering equations described the sequential computation of the Bernoulli Numbers for Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” – a never-built mechanical computer first proposed in 1837.
19. The Dishwasher
Don’t you just hate it when the servants leave ghastly chips in the china? Well, the world’s first commercially viable hand-powered dishwasher was invented by the well-to-do Josephine Cochrane to prevent just this. Cochrane proceeded to scoop an award at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and, soon after, opened a factory to meet public demand for her invention.
Kevlar is the trademark moniker for poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide – a synthetic fiber a full five times stronger than steel. Invented in 1965 by the American chemist Stephanie Kwolek, the material is used in everything from bullet-proof vests to bicycle tires and fighter jets. Small wonder that Kwolek’s game-changing invention earned her employer, DuPont, billions of dollars in profits.
17. The Diaper Cover
In 1950s America, the male-dominated business world didn’t take much interest in Marion Donovan’s disposable diaper invention. “Not necessary,” they said. Donovan was, however, successful at marketing its precursor, “The Boater” – a nylon-sewn diaper cover which significantly reduced diaper rash and leakage. Fully disposable diapers eventually went on sale in 1961 as a product of Proctor & Gamble.
16. The Hand-Syringe
There were already dozens of syringes on the market in 1899 when New York inventor Letitia Mumford Geer submitted her patent for a rectal syringe with “a handle of peculiar and novel construction.” It was the first syringe that could be operated single-handed, and the next big breakthrough in related design would not happen for another 40 years.
15. Non-reflective Glass
Widely used in lenses and car windows, non-reflective glass is just one important product to have emerged from Katharine Blodgett’s experiments with monomolecular film coatings. As the first woman to achieve a physics Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge – and the first female scientist to work for General Electric – Blodgett was a social pioneer as well as a groundbreaking inventor during the 20th century.
A strong contender for being the planet’s most popular board game, Monopoly has sold some 275 million sets in 111 countries since its first release in 1933. Yet while it’s marketed by the Parker Brothers, the game is actually a reinvention of Elizabeth Magie’s “The Landlord’s Game,” brought out in 1904. Unlike Monopoly, however, Magie’s game was intended as a critique of capitalism and land-grabbing.
13. The Fire Escape Bridge
Industrial development in the 19th century saw cities grow upwards as well as outwards. The new multi-story apartment blocks and factories did, however, pose a deadly hazard owing to their lack of fire escapes. Fortunately, in 1887 Anna Connelly patented the Fire Escape Bridge, a forerunner to modern fire escapes that allowed those on upper floors to flee to the next rooftop.
12. The bra
New York debutante Mary Phelps Jacob – later Caresse Crosby – was just 19 when in 1910 she fashioned the first modern bra from two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. What’s more, Jacob wore the undergarment to a ball, and it so impressed her friends that she went on to patent it and found the Fashion Form Brassière Company. In later life, this trailblazing woman flourished into a wild bohemian and patron of the arts, too.
11. Windshield Wipers
Mary Anderson – a rancher, vineyard-owner and real estate developer from Alabama – patented her windshield wiper invention in 1903. Anderson was unsuccessful in selling its rights, however, and in 1920 her patent ran out. Furthermore, as bad timing would have it, the automobile industry dramatically expanded in the subsequent decade, with Cadillac offering wipers as standard.
Pyrimethamine is considered one of the world’s most important medicines by the World Health Organization. And, used in the treatment and prevention of malaria, it is just one part of an extensive pharmacopeia developed by Gertrude Elion, a Nobel Prize-winning American biochemist. Before her death in 1999, Elion invented new treatments for cancer, meningitis and gout, among others.
9. The Microelectrode
Ida Henrietta Hyde invented the microelectrode in the 1930s, but its most extraordinary applications are being developed right now in the 21st century. Microelectrodes stimulate or measure electrical activity at the cellular level. And they are used in the cutting-edge technology of neural interfaces, which allow prosthetic limbs – or any other mechanical device – to be controlled directly by the brain.
8. The Coffee Filter
Coffee is the fuel of industry; most workplaces would slump without it. And it’s thanks to Amalie Bentz that we can all enjoy a cup of the black stuff – and increase our productivity – without getting a mouthful of unpleasant grains. The German-born housewife gave us the humble coffee filter in 1908 using blotting paper taken from her little boy’s school book.
7. The Hydrazine Resistojet
The Hydrazine Resistojet is a propulsion system used for positioning satellites in orbit. It was invented in 1967 by a brilliant Canadian-American rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, and continues to be used in a wide range of commercial and military space ventures, particularly in the telecommunications industries.
6. Stored Program Control
Stored Program Control (SPC) rendered the analog telephone exchange obsolete by enabling computer software to connect calls. The technology heralded a revolution in telecommunications, and it was conceived in 1957 by Dr. Erna Hoover, an American mathematician and employee of Bell Laboratories. SPC and electronic switching systems were the industry standard by the 1980s.
5. The Life Raft
Maria Beasley’s important contribution to maritime safety was a compact, wood-built life raft that could be easily stored and launched at sea. Invented in 1880, it was a precursor to modern inflatable rafts, likewise designed to be compact and simple to use. Beasley patented no less than 15 inventions during her lifetime, including a highly successful barrel-making machine.
4. Signal Flares
Used to signal maritime distress, pyrotechnic flares are essential kit for seafarers and have saved countless lives since their invention. The woman to thank for them? Martha Coston, who spent almost a decade following up on the research of her late husband, Benjamin Coston. Her three color flare system was adopted by the U.S. Navy in 1859.
3. Closed-Circuit Television
Few security technologies have been as widely implemented as closed-circuit television: everywhere from airports to supermarkets, cameras watch our every move. Now the world’s first CCTV system was invented for domestic use by Marie Van Brittan Brown in 1966. Brown’s invention proved popular among businesses, and it earned her a prize bestowed by the National Science Committee.
2. Correction Fluid
In the 1970s and ’80s, before personal computing revolutionized the workplace, no typist was without a bottle of trusty correction fluid. And it was Bette Nesmith Graham, a secretary for a Texas bank, who invented the stuff in 1951, selling it from her home after she lost her job. Moreover, in 1979 Graham’s years of hard work paid off: Gillette Corporation bought her product for $47.5 million together with royalties.
1. The Miniskirt
The British designer Mary Quant is generally credited as the inventor of the miniskirt, though some other designers have tried to claim that crown. The skirt became de rigueur in the swinging sixties, a symbol of brazen feminine power as popularized by models such as Twiggy.