Throughout the centuries, women have been traditionally celebrated for their gentle nature, motherly instincts, and intuitiveness. However, what many may not realize is 20% of widely-used items and processes were invented by women. This percentage may seem low, but this percentage is predicted to rise to 50% over the next decade. Let’s look into the wonderful world of female-founded inventions that have helped shape the world we know and love today.
1. Disposable Diapers
Born in 1917, Marion Donovan grew up in a family of pioneers. As a housewife, Donovan grew tired of the strenuous task of washing and rewashing cloth diapers. With only her sewing machine and a shower curtain, Donovan produced the first ever waterproof diaper cover. Through time, Donovan perfected her invention by adding snap fasteners in place of the hazardous safety pins. Named the “Boater” due to its boat-like appearance, Donovan sought a manufacturer to help mass produce these waterproof diaper covers. Unfortunately, no manufacturing company would consider her product. Through self-promotion, Donovan’s “Boaters” became a huge success, making their first debut at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949.
After the success of the waterproof diaper cover, Marion Donovan noted how beneficial a completely disposable diaper would be to mothers everywhere. Facing similar challenges with the lack of manufacturers interested in her inventio, the hesitancy of individuals to see the value and realism in the product, and the process of finding a paper-like product that was durable, absorbent, and gentle on a child’s skin, it was a decade later that a manufacturer by the name of Victor Mills accepted Donovan’s invention and created Pampers®. Labeled as “mother of inventions,” Donovan secured a total of 20 patents, securing her as one of the top inventors of her time.
2. Commercial Dishwashing Machine
Josephine Cochrane was born in 1839 and made her mark in the world with her invention of the first dishwashing machine. Raised by her father, a civil engineer, and grandfather, who was known for inventing various steamboat instruments, Cochrane strived to design an apparatus which could securely hold various dishes while a powerful sprayer cleaned the dishes. With the continued chipping of her china due to rough handling by servants, Cochrane brainstormed on a way to properly clean her dishes without the risk of damage. She came up with the idea of using water jets to clean the dishes that were securely placed on a rack.
Deep in debt after the passing of her husband, Cochrane implemented her idea by measuring her dishes and constructing sturdy racks to hold them. Once the rack was placed on a wheel inside the machine, the wheel, which was motorized, would begin to spin causing soapy water to squirt out and cleanse the dishes. In 1886, Cochran patented the “Cochrane Dishwasher” and with the establishment of Cochrane’s Crescent Washing Machine Company, Cochrane began selling to restaurants and hotels. Unfortunately, individual consumers were not as receptive to her commercial dishwashing machine. After further modifications, Cochrane’s dishwashing machine became incredibly popular in the 1950s and eventually became a part of the Whirlpool Corporation under the name KitchenAid.
Digital programming and communication have come a long way with the help of Dr. Shirley Jackson. Jackson’s study of subatomic particles ushered in the invention of the portable fax, the touch-tone telephone, fiber-optic cables, and much more. Dr. Shirley Jackson was born in 1946 in Washington, D.C. where her love for science and mathematics was nurtured by both her mother and father. Following her passion for science and mathematics, Jackson attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at MIT.
During her time as a research associate in theoretical physics at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Jackson studied subatomic particles with strong nuclear forces. In 1976, Jackson began her work at Bell Telephone Laboratories, which guided inventions of various telecommunication innovations, such as solar cells and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Today, Dr. Shirley Jackson continues to spread the need for more women in science and mathematics industry as well as nurture young girls’ love for these disciplines. Think of all the technology you wouldn’t have without her!
4. Coffee Filter
Coffee – the proverbial drink of every early riser and needed pick-me-up during the 2 o’clock energy slump. We rarely give that little paper that filters the coffee grounds any consideration, but let it be known, this small piece of innovative genius was invented by a German entrepreneur by the name of Melitta Bentz. Born in 1873, Bentz reimagined the way housewives brewed their morning coffee. With the use of thick, absorbent paper and a brass pot with several holes in it, this allowed the coffee grounds to be separated from the liquid. Bentz obtained a patent for her coffee filter in 1908 and in 1930, the design was changed to a cone shape with a larger filtering area. Say a little “thank you” to Bentz when you sip on your afternoon caffeine boost!
5. Electric Refrigerator
What would our modern kitchens be without an electric refrigerator? In 1914, Mrs. Florence Parpart obtained a second patent for the modern electric refrigerator. Not much is known of Parpart’s earlier years, but through ingenuity and the attendance of multiple tradeshows, Parpart was able to market her electric refrigerators and manage the advertising, production, and operation of her own company. Parpart and her husband continued the manufacturing and selling of many more refrigerators during her lifetime.
6. Windshield Wipers
Mary Anderson was born in 1866, and it is believed that on a cold, rainy day while in New York City, Mary Anderson rode on a streetcar and noticed the driver was having difficulty seeing through the snow and ice splattered windshield. She conceded that the existing system of the driver opening the split panel and wiping the rain and snow off the windshield was inefficient. Anderson reportedly began sketching a more practical design right there on the streetcar.
Anderson developed a successful prototype which consisted of a set of wiper arms made of wood and rubber attached to a lever near the driver close to the steering wheel. Once the lever was pulled, the spring-loaded arms would move back and forward removing the ice and snow. Unfortunately, the wipers did not go over too well with people because they felt the wipers would distract the drivers and cause accidents. Although awarded a patent in 1903, Anderson could not entice any manufacturing firms to accept her invention, citing it as having no practical value. Sadly, Anderson passed away never having made any money from the now-necessary wiper blades.
7. Car Heater
Margaret Wilcox was born in 1838 and was one of a small handful of mechanical engineers. Seeking an idea that would one day become a great invention, Wilcox created a prototype which would allow the movement of air from the engine in a way that would heat the driver’s hands while on the steering wheel. With a small amount of resistance from those who worried about the inability to control the temperature, Wilcox received a patent for the interior car heater in 1893. This major contribution has become the basis of all modern car heating systems today.
8. Mechanical Turn Signal and BrakeLight
Born in 1886, Florence Lawrence was a beloved Canadian-American performer and actress. Upon purchasing her first automobile, Lawrence desired to learn everything she could about automobiles including additional safety measures. In 1914, Lawrence developed a mechanism which functioned as a signaling arm for drivers wanting to turn. This mechanism allowed a flag on the rear bumper to be raised and lowered with the push of a button, which notified other drivers what direction the automobile was headed. With the pressing of the brake, a small “stop” sign would pop up in the rear of the automobile. Unfortunately, Lawrence failed to patent her inventions and other companies claimed and submitted patents on similar work. It is sometimes argued that Lawrence was not the first to invent such safety mechanisms, but her knowledge for automobiles was an amazing feat in her day.
9. Central Heating
In 1919, Alice H. Parker, the inventor of the first gas heating furnace, received a patent for her ingenious design. Parker’s design played an integral role in providing central heating to citizens’ homes using gas to power the furnace instead of coal or wood. Parker’s patent also included the use of air ducts to deliver the heat produced by the gas heating furnaces. It is believed Parker grew increasingly annoyed with cold weather; therefore, she worked through many trials and errors to produce a well-functioning gas heating furnace. Parker’s furnace differed from others because of its multiple burner system, which could individually be controlled. Not much is known of Alice Parker’s childhood, but we are greatly appreciative of her contribution.
10. Fire Escape Bridge
Inventor of the updated, modern, fire escape, Anna Connelly patented her improved design of the fire escape in 1887. As buildings incorporated more floors, Connelly recognized these wood structures would definitely require a more advanced system for escaping fires along with assisting the building owners to abide by the newly enforced laws requiring exterior stairs. Connelly’s design consisted of a bridge enclosed by railings with openings at the ends, allowing for safe passage. Connelly improved upon the existing pulley system for escaping buildings, making her a leading figure in safety and designs.
Throughout history, we have seen women earnestly fight for equal rights and opportunities which are comparable to their male counterparts. Within the past 200 years, women have become innovative leaders in many industries ranging from telecommunication, automotive, engineering, medical, and so many more. As technology continues to improve and the functionality of common items are becoming more refined, women are pioneering the way for the development of more advanced technologies, techniques, and medical breakthroughs.
McKenzie Brower is a contributing writer and media relations specialist for Channel Supply Experts. She finds inspiration in the entrepreneurial spirit in the women of history and the present. She also wishes you a Happy Women’s History Month and encourages you to research more influential women!