“The inventiveness of women has existed for as long as the sensation of cold or hunger.” – Jette Sandah, director of the Women’s Museum in Denmark.
Women have always found solutions to the problems they face. But, for social or historical reasons, it was only rarely reported until recently. Scholars consider Hypatia Alexandria, an Egyptian mathematician and fourth-century nature philosopher, to be one of the first known women inventors.
She would have invented several scientific instruments including the astrolabe for astronomical measurements and a hydrometer to measure the severity of certain liquids. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, the WIPO Magazine took a somewhat less academic look at the issue of women inventors.
Many women of this caliber are quoted in Deborah Jaffe’s book Ingenious Women: From Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines. There is a living description of black inventors and da Vinci inventions, ranging from strange to impressive, the work opening on the first English patent issued to a woman, Amy Everard, in 1637, for her dyeing saffron and essence of roses.
For centuries, the achievements of women inventors have been almost totally denied. Sarah Guppy from Bristol (UK) is a good example. In 1811, Miss Guppy patented a method “for bridges and railways” based on the use of powerful pillars or columns on the basis of which the bridges could be suspended. But the history books do not mention his name next to him from the famous suspension bridge engineers, who followed him 10 years later.
Tracing the history of women behind inventions is all the more difficult because, until the end of the nineteenth century, married women in the United Kingdom and the United States of America had no legal the right to hold property or intellectual property. If they ever filed a patent application,
Others had to fight to protect their intellectual property from the usurpers. In 1870, Margaret Knight of Massachusetts (United States of America), a worker in a cotton mill, invented the machine for making flat-bottomed paper bags, won the lawsuit she had filed against a man who had copied his drawing and tried to get a patent in his name. The man in question argued in court that a woman was simply not capable of designing such a machine. His industrial design is still used today.
It was for the sake of protection that Louisa Llewellyn patented in 1904 her “glove for self-defense and other purposes” for women (the patent does not mention what were the other purposes in question). Designed for the ever-increasing number of women who traveled alone by train, this glove was equipped with sharp steel claws in their fingers to defend their owner against “thieves and other people with devilish designs”.
From kitchen to Kevlar
Traditional activities being a lot of housewives, domestic innovations have multiplied, sparing the following generations hours of chores. Elizabeth Merrell, a metal worker in London, invented the electric washing machine in 1859 and Josephine Cochran, a dishwasher in 1872. A hundred years later, Marion Donovan of Indiana (United Kingdom), invented the first disposable diaper.
In the face of the manufacturers’ refusal to market her invention because of its cost, she set up her own company, which she later sold for one million US dollars. It’s still the same practical sense that led Mary Anderson to design the first mechanical windshield wiper while traveling by tram in New York in 1903: “A simple mechanism … to remove snow,
The pioneering women of the twentieth century have pushed the boundaries of science and technology. The extraordinary contribution of Marie Curie, who has received two Nobel prizes for chemistry and physics, is well known. But the fact that, in 1942, the fascinating film actress Hedy Lamarr, born in Vienna, patented, while her career was at its peak in Hollywood, a revolutionary system of frequency hopping for torpedoes is much less known.
The United States Army at that time objected to its wish to donate the patent to participate in the war effort. But this technique is now the basis of the main anti-jamming instrument used in many national defense systems.