A previous post focused on inventions that may have been more obvious to women because they are involved in the day-to-day activities of “women’s” work or household chores. However, this one highlights women that came up with inventions that many of us may not know came from women.
How many people know that the circular saw was invented by Tabitha Babbitt in 1812, the life raft by Maria Beasley in 1880 and windshield wipers by Mary Anderson in 1903.
Inventor Tabitha Babbitt was an early American and Shaker tool maker. It is believed that she was watching men use the difficult two-man whipsaw when she noticed that half of their motion was wasted and realized that a round blade would be more efficient. She is credited with inventing the first circular saw used in a saw mill in 1813. There will always be doubters and it has been contested whether she, or other Shakers, were the first to invent the circular saw as she never patented this or any of her other inventions which included an improved spinning wheel head and false teeth.
Margaret Knight was around machines from the age of 12 when she started working in a cotton mill. In 1868 she invented a machine that created flat-bottomed paper bags that are still in use today – grocery bags, lunch bags, gift bags, and more. However, while the first model was being built, a man named Charles Annan stole her idea and patented the machine. Knight took Annan to court and, in a rare turn of events for a woman at the time, she won the suit and was awarded the patent in 1871. Knight went on to receive at least 27 more patents in her lifetime (some sources say she held more than 80). Her other inventions include a numbering machine, shoe-manufacturing machines and several devices relating to rotary engines.
American inventor Maria Beasley wanted a better life raft, one that was “fire-proof, compact, safe, and readily-launched” when needed. According to the patent, she invented a new design in 1880. Her life raft sported guard rails and rectangular metal floats. By changing the style of the floats, the raft actually folded and unfolded more easily for use and storage, even with the added guard rails. While the life raft is the invention that made Maria Beasley famous, she actually made money from her other inventions (15 to be exact) which included a wooden barrel-making machine, a steam generator and an anti-derailment device for trains.
When touring New York City in a trolley car on a rainy day in 1902, Mary Anderson noticed that the driver had to keep the panes of the double front window open in order to see the road ahead. She began to sketch her wiper device right there on the streetcar and, when she returned home in Alabama, she had a local company produce a working model of the hand-operated device. In 1903 she applied for and was granted a 17-year patent for her windshield wiper. Similar devices had been made earlier, but hers was the first to be effective. In 1905, when she tried to sell the rights to her invention she was told “we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.” Ironically, after the patent expired in 1920, and the automobile manufacturing business grew exponentially, windshield wipers using Anderson’s basic design became standard equipment.
She may be best remembered for her movie career, but did you know that Austrian born Hedy Lemarr (Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler Markey) was instrumental in developing a guidance system during WW2 for Allied torpedoes which used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. Her ground-breaking work remained unrecognized until 1997 when the Electronic Frontier Foundation acknowledged “spread-spectrum broadcasting” for its ability to “give ordinary people with ordinary resources” affordable access to the airwaves. When the Foundation called to tell her she would get the award apparently her first words were “Well, it’s about time.” The principles of this work have been incorporated into modern GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth technology.
We’ll probably never know how many women inventors there were because, in the early years of the United States, a woman could not get a patent in her own name. For example, many people believe that Sybilla Masters was the first American woman inventor. In 1712 she developed a new corn mill but was denied a patent because she was a woman. Three years later the patent was filed successfully in her husband’s name.
You may also want to read the previous post on women inventors.