On 5 May 1809, Mary Kies became the the first woman to receive a patent in the US for her technique of weaving straw with silk. Though female inventors certainly existed before Kies, laws in many states made it illegal for women to own their own property, which meant that if they even applied for patents at all, it was probably under their husband’s name.
Even today, though female patent holders have increased fivefold from 1977 to 2016, there is still some way to go before female inventors are fairly represented. However, there are a number of women throughout history who defied social barriers to invent some of the most universally used and recognised programs, products and devices that we all benefit from today.
Here are 10 inventions and innovations by women.
1. The computer compiler
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper joined the US Navy during World War Two, and after being assigned to work on a new computer called the Mark 1, soon became the foremost developer of computer programming in the 1950s. She worked behind the compiler, which effectively translated instructions into computer-readable code and revolutionised how computers worked.
Nicknamed ‘Amazing Grace’, Hopper was also the first to popularise the term ‘bug’ and ‘de-bugging’ after a moth was removed from her computer. She continued working with computers until she retired from the navy aged 79 as its oldest serving officer.
2. Wireless transmission technology
Austrian-American Hollywood icon Hedy Lamarr was most well-known for her glittering acting career, appearing in films like Samson and Delilah and White Cargo in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. However, during World War Two she pioneered a way for radio guidance transmitters and torpedo receivers to simultaneously jump from one frequency to another.
Lamarr’s technology formed the basis for modern-day WiFi technology, and though she has been dubbed the ‘mother of WiFi’, she never received a penny for her invention, which is estimated to be worth $30 billion today.
3. Windscreen wipers
One cold New York winter’s day in 1903, real estate developer and rancher Mary Anderson was a passenger in a car. She noticed that her driver was forced to repeatedly open the window every time he needed to clear the snow from his windscreen, which in turn made all of the passengers colder.
Her early invention of a rubber blade which could be moved inside the car to clear the snow was awarded a patent in 1903. However, car companies feared it would distract drivers, so never invested in her idea. Anderson never profited from her invention, even when wipers later became standard on cars.
4. Laser cataract surgery
In 1986, American scientist and inventor Patricia Bath invented and patented the Laserphaco Probe, a device that vastly improved laser eye surgery, allowing doctors to dissolve cataracts painlessly and quickly before applying new lenses to patients’ eyes.
She went on to become the first black American to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first black female doctor in the US to patent a medical device.
DuPont researcher Stephanie Kwolek was trying to develop strong but lightweight plastics to use in car tyres when she discovered what came to be known as Kevlar, a strong, lightweight and heat-resistant material that has saved countless lives when used in bullet-proof vests. She patented her design in 1966, and it became a substitute for asbestos from the 1970s. The material is also used in applications such as bridge cables, canoes and frying pans.
6. Caller ID
Theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson’s research in the 1970s developed the first caller ID technology. Her breakthroughs also allowed others to invent the portable fax machine, solar cells and fibre optic cables.
On top of her inventions, she is the first African-American woman to have earned a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the second African-American woman in the US to earn a doctorate in physics.
7. Computer algorithms
From 1842-1843, brilliant mathematician Ada Lovelace wrote and published the first ever computer program. Based on a hypothetical future, Lovelace recognised the potential for machines to achieve more than pure calculation. While working with mathematics professor Charles Babbage on his theoretical invention the analytical engine, Lovelace added her own notes which are credited as being the world’s first computer program.
On top of her reputation for her dazzling intellect, Lovelace was known for being the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, Lord Byron’s daughter, and was a belle of British society.
8. Stem cell isolation
In 1991, Ann Tsukamoto co-patented the process of isolating human stem cells found in bone marrow. Her invention, which allows damaged blood stem cells to be transplanted, has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, revolutionised certain cancer treatments and has led to many medical breakthroughs in the time since. Tsukamoto holds a total of 12 US patents for her stem cell research.
9. The automatic dishwasher
Josephine Cochrane was a frequent dinner party host and wanted to create a machine that would both wash her dishes faster than and be less likely to break them than her servants. She invented a machine which involved turning a wheel inside a copper boiler, and in contrast with other designs which relied on brushes, hers was the first automatic dishwasher to use water pressure.
Her alcoholic husband left her in severe debt which motivated her to patent her invention in 1886. She later opened her own production factory.
10. The life raft
Between 1878 and 1898, American entrepreneur and inventor Maria Beasley patented fifteen inventions in the US. Among the most pivotal was her invention of an improved version of the life raft in 1882, which had guard rails, and was fireproof and foldable. Her life rafts were used on the Titanic, and though there famously weren’t enough of them, her design saved over 700 lives.