March is Women’s History Month—a time to celebrate the achievements of women and acknowledge the ways in which many have changed modern life through invention.
“The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” -Grace Hopper
Background of Women’s History Month
Before the 1970’s, the topic of women in history was largely missing from general public consciousness. To address this situation, the Education Task Force on the Status of Women initiated a “Women’s History Week” celebration in 1978 and chose the week of March 8 to coincide with International Women’s Day. In 1987, the National Women’s History Project petitioned Congress to expand the celebration to the entire month of March.
Since then, the National Women’s History Month Resolution has been approved every year with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. (Source: ThoughtCo)
Women of Invention
Women have been at the forefront of invention for centuries. Their ideas, and subsequent inventions, have shaped the modern world as we know it. While there are countless women to celebrate, we discuss four women below that have made great strides in engineering.
The First Woman to File an American Patent. In 1809, Mary Dixon Kies received the first U. S. patent issued to a woman. Kies, a Connecticut native, invented a process for weaving straw with silk or thread. First Lady Dolley Madison praised her for boosting the nation’s hat industry. Unfortunately, the patent file was destroyed in the great Patent Office fire in 1836. Until about 1840, only 20 other patents were issued to women. The inventions related to apparel, tools, cook stoves, and fireplaces. (Source: ThoughtCo)
Inventor of the Paper Bag. Margaret Knight was an exceptionally prolific inventor in the late 19th century; journalists occasionally compared her to her better-known male contemporary Thomas Edison by nicknaming her “the lady Edison” or “a woman Edison.”
After seeing a fellow worker injured by a faulty piece of equipment, Knight came up with her first invention: a safety device for textile looms. She was awarded her first patent in 1871, for a machine that cut, folded and glued flat-bottomed paper shopping bags, thus eliminating the need for workers to assemble them slowly by hand. This machine and method is still in use today. Knight received 27 patents in her lifetime. (Source: Biography)
Inventor of Transparent Glass. Katherine Blodgett (1898-1979) was a woman of many firsts. She was the first female scientist hired by General Electric’s Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York (1917) as well as the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Physics from Cambridge University (1926). Blodgett’s research on monomolecular coatings led her to a revolutionary discovery.
She discovered a way to apply the coatings layer by layer to glass and metal. The thin films, which naturally reduced glare on reflective surfaces, when layered to a certain thickness, would completely cancel out the reflection from the surface underneath. This resulted in the world’s first 100% transparent or invisible glass. Blodgett’s patented film and process (1938) has been used for many purposes including limiting distortion in eyeglasses, microscopes, telescopes, camera and projector lenses. (Source: Biography)
Computer Science Pioneer. Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was one of the first programmers to transform large digital computers from oversized calculators into relatively intelligent machines capable of understanding “human” instructions. Hopper developed a common language with which computers could communicate called Common Business-Oriented Language or COBOL, now the most widely used computer business language in the world.
In addition to many other firsts, Hopper was the first woman to graduate from Yale University with a Ph.D. in Mathematics, and in 1985, was the first woman ever to reach the rank of admiral in the US Navy. Hopper’s work was never patented; her contributions were made before computer software technology was even considered a “patentable” field. (Source: Biography)
We encourage you to share the stories of these women along with other notable women inventors with your students, colleagues, children and classmates. By acknowledging and celebrating the women innovators of the past, we encourage the women innovators of the future.
Other women inventors that have made an impact are: Stephanie Kwolek (inventor of Kevlar), Melitta Bentz (inventor of the coffeemaker), Ann Moore (inventor of the Snugli baby carrier) and Martha Coston (inventor of pyrotechnic flares).
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