Thomas Edison. Alexander Bell. James Dyson. Eli Whitney. Nikola Tesla. Ron Popeil.
It’s true: Most iconic, off-the-top-of-your-head inventors are probably men. And a lot of them are dead white ones, at that. But if you pause for a moment to take a quick look around you — in your home, at your workplace or even in your car — you will likely encounter something, perhaps multiple somethings, born from the solution-solving ingenuity of a woman.
In celebration of these forward-thinking, game-changing visionaries, we’ve rounded up six female-invented items that you probably encounter, directly and indirectly, daily. And keep in mind that many of these inventors and patent-holders were innovating during an era when such activities were discouraged, discredited and even disallowed. They broke the mold and shattered stereotypes while making the world we live in a better place — safer, easier, more efficient, more convenient.
All photos: Wikimedia Commons
If it weren’t for Alabama-born cattle rancher and vineyard owner Mary Anderson, who patented a "window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window," we'd still be sticking our heads out the window or pulling over to the side of the road to wait it out every time it rained. Or maybe not.
Regardless, when Anderson submitted her patent in 1903, it failed to garner much interest — a spring-loaded doodad with a rubber blade operated from inside a vehicle via hand lever was widely considered to be even more of a distraction than clearing a window by hand while in the driver's seat.
Keep in mind that Anderson pitched this game-changer before Henry Ford's Model A hit the scene. A rather harrowing, stop-and-go trolley ride during a visit to New York City inspired Anderson to return to Alabama and create a device that allowed streetcar operators to maintain visibility in inclement weather without having to stick their heads out of windows or stop altogether to clear off frozen precipitation.
It wasn’t until after Anderson's patent expired a decade later that lever-operated windshield wipers became a standard feature in automobiles which previously had lacked windshields altogether (which explains all those stylish, turn-of-the-century driving goggles). A woman also patented the first automatic windshield wiper in 1917. Much like Anderson before her, Charlotte Bridgwood’s patent for the "storm windshield cleaner" was considered DOA, only to later become compulsory.
Sure, correction fluid isn't quite the ubiquitous desktop necessity it once was. Because, you know, computers. In the not-so-distant past, however, if you used an electric typewriter on a regular basis and weren't some kind of nimble-fingered wizard immune to typos, you also probably kept a bottle of magical mistake-eraser within easy reach.
Go figure that it was a frustrated secretary with an entrepreneurial streak who allowed the electric-typewriter-using world to collectively dab out its errors with relative ease. First concocted by Bette Nesmith Graham in 1951, Liquid Paper brand correction fluid forever changed the way we dealt with mistakes. Launched as a homemade formula called Mistake Out that Graham bottled in her Dallas kitchen, the lifesaving office product was perfected and renamed Liquid Paper in 1958. It was patented and trademarked that same year.
Within a decade, Liquid Paper was huge — no longer just the secret weapon of savvy Dallas secretaries. Graham, a single mother who had been fired from her secretarial job because of her side gig, was now a heralded inventor, philanthropist and businesswoman overseeing a multimillion dollar international company. Graham sold Liquid Paper to the Gillette Corp. for $47.5 million in 1979. She died a year later at age 56.
And Liquid Paper isn't the only gift that Graham bestowed upon the world. Her only son, who as a child dutifully assisted his mother in launching a correction fluid empire out of their Dallas home, is none other than former wool-beanie-wearing Monkees guitarist Michael Nesmith.
We suppose you could call Josephine Cochrane an inventor with an empathetic streak. Or maybe just a control freak. A socialite who hosted frequent soirées at her Illinois home, Cochrane never, god forbid, washed dishes herself. That's what servants were for. However, Cochrane did observe the hired help perform this act of domestic drudgery and knew there had to be a better way — a less time-consuming, less labor-intensive method that, most importantly, wouldn’t yield chipped heirloom china. So she invented one.
In December 1886, Cochrane received U.S. patent number 355,139 for her "practical" (a previous hand-crank dishwashing device invented by Joe Houghton in 1850 proved an unreliable, ineffective dud) automatic dishwashing machine. When her husband died and left her with a sizable debt, the plucky Cochrane really got to work, tinkering in a shed behind her home with the assistance of mechanic George Butters. In 1893, she unveiled her revolutionary machine at the Chicago World's Fair. It was a hit.
Despite all the positive publicity and its growing popularity in restaurants and hotels, Cochrane was never, in her lifetime, able push her rather pricey machine into households – a market she had targeted from Day 1. Cochrane died in 1913. It wasn't until the 1950s that Cochrane's menial task-busting machine — as part of Hobart Manufacturing Co.'s KitchenAid division — finally found a home in the home.
Although she should probably have a landfill or two named in her honor, you've got to hand it to solution-oriented crackerjack Marion Donovan for bringing convenience to the changing table. As a young Connecticut housewife with a knack for ingenuity, Donovan first won the hearts of beleaguered mothers everywhere with Boaters — waterproof reusable diaper covers made from surplus nylon parachute cloth and held into place with snap fasteners in lieu of safety pins (Donovan’s early prototypes were crafted from shower curtains.)
Although manufacturers shied from the design that, unlike rubber baby pants, also reduced diaper rash, Donovan independently sold the mess-curbing precursor to the disposable diaper at Saks Fifth Avenue, where they were a hot item. In 1951, Donovan's patent was accepted; later that year, she sold the rights to her invention to Keko Corp. for a million bucks.
Donovan was just warming up. While earning an architecture degree from Yale, Donovan developed an absorbent, single-use diaper. You'd think such a thing would be snatched up in a heartbeat. But like Boaters, it took a fair amount of time — in this case, 10 years of shopping the concept around — before Donovan's vision became a reality thanks to Victor "Pampers" Mills of Proctor & Gamble.
And Donovan didn't stop there. Throughout her lifetime, she earned numerous patents — most were focused on making domestic life just a touch less aggravating, a bit tidier: a facial tissue box (1953), a towel dispenser (1957), a hosiery clasp (1963) and a closet organizer (1979) are just a few of her creations. Later in life, she turned her attention to dental hygiene products with the invention of the DentaLoop. And that degree in architecture eventually came in handy when Donovan designed her own Greenwich, Conn., home in 1980.
Although modern era inventors such as Patsy Sherman (Scotchgard, 1973) and Rose Totino (frozen pizza, 1979) are renowned for introducing newfangled products that have forever changed the domestic landscape, their equally ingenious predecessors took existing household products, some of them rather primitive, and greatly improved them.
A case in point is Sarah Boone, a pioneering African-American inventor from Mississippi who didn't flat-out invent the ironing board but who, in 1892, received a patent that rendered the product better, more efficient, easier to use — the true precursor to the laundry room staple we know today.
The aim of her invention, as stated in her patent application was to "to produce a cheap, simple,convenient and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies' garments."
Boone, who died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1900, was somewhat of an anomaly at the time, although she did have a handful of peers, including the first African-American woman to receive a U.S. patent, Judy W. Reed (a dough kneading machine, 1884); Sarah E. Goode (the folding cabinet bed, 1885); and Lyda Newman (a hairbrush with synthetic bristles, 1898) who paved the way for other women of color such as Marjorie Joyner and Madame C.J. Walker working within the beauty and hair care industry.
Although her invention might not be as tasty as Ruth Wakefield's (chocolate chip cookies, 1938), as entertaining as Lizzie Magie's (the Landlord's Game, the precursor to Monopoly) or as dude-approved as Tabitha Babbitt's (the circular saw, 1813) you've got to hand it to the National Medal of Technology-winning DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek for inventing something in 1964 that's a literal lifesaver: poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, or, as the cool kids call it, Kevlar.
Lightweight, yet five times the strength of steel and, most famously, bullet- and fireproof, the applications for Kwolek's synthetic miracle fiber are vast: body armor, tennis rackets, bicycle tires, brake pads, string instruments, sneakers, suspension bridge cables, fuselage panels, kayaks and canoes, wind turbines, and the list goes on.
Unless you work in law enforcement or have a serious sporting gear fetish, you're closet isn't likely to be Kevlar-heavy. But as evidenced above, this versatile fiber created by the daughter of Polish immigrants who as a child wanted to be a fashion designer, plays into all of our lives whether we're conscious of it or not.
And while we’re on the topic of lifesaving clothing, it should come as little surprise that the modern-day brassiere as we know it was the handiwork of a female inventor, Mary Phelps Jacob. A Boston socialite-turned-poet whose brassiere patent was accepted in 1914 (bye-bye torturous corset), Jacob, or "Polly" as she was best known, went on to live quite the colorful life — sex scandals, suicide pacts, opium smoking, slumming with Henry Miller — with her second husband, publisher and big-time bon vivant Harry Crosby.
Six more everyday items invented by women:
- Wrinkle-free cotton (Ruth Benerito)
- Paper grocery bags (Margaret E. Knight)
- The computer compiler (Grace Murray Hopper)
- Paper cotton filters (Melitta Betnz)
- Home security systems (Marie Van Brittan Brown)
- The Barbie doll (Ruth Handler)