Female Inventors Who Have Changed Our Lives – Part 1

When you think of famous inventors, the first names that come to mind are ones like Tesla, Edison, and Wright. However, you are probably unfamiliar with the names of Kwolek, Connelly, or Knight. The difference between these two groups of individuals is that the former is a list of female inventors.

In 1809 the first U.S. patent ever granted to a woman was given to Mary Kies for her invention of a silk thread weaving machine. Since that time multiple women have been engaged in innovative and entrepreneurial endeavors, creating inventions ranging from Kevlar to fire escapes to chocolate chip cookies. Despite the major impact that women inventors have had, they are still outnumbered and overshadowed by their male counterparts. In fact today, only 7% of U.S. patents list women as their primary inventors. Therefore during Women’s History Month we will be focusing on women inventors.

March is Women’s History Month and we will be highlighting historical female inventors as well as Emory’s historical female figures and inventors through a series of five blog posts. We hope you enjoy.

Here are the first five female inventors whose innovations have shaped the world we live in today:

  • Margaret Knight: It was in 1871 that Knight filed her first U.S. patent for a machine that cut, folded, and glued the brown paper shopping bags that are used daily in grocery stores around the world. Her invention mechanized the production of these bags and increased factories’ industrial output. However, Knight was almost not recognized for this invention, because before she could patent the iron version of her machine a man named Charles Annan stole her design and filed his own patent. He argued that a woman did not possess the creativity to craft such a complex contraption. Knight took Annan to court and proved that the invention was hers. She went on to earn 27 more patents for inventions like the rotary engine and a shoe manufacturing machine.

  • Stephanie Kwolek: Kwolek was a worker at the Dupont chemical company, where she was hired to work on crafting new synthetic materials. In 1965 she made a breakthrough creating a heavy duty and lightweight fiber, that is known today by its more common name, Kevlar. This versatile fabric has a diverse spectrum of uses from bulletproof vests to building materials to work gloves. Suffice it to say this woman’s invention literally saves lives. In 1994 she was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her work in synthetic fibers. Furthermore, during her time at Dupont she filed an additional 28 patents contributing further inventions to the innovation field.

  • Gertrude Elion: Elion was a biochemist and pharmacologist, who was responsible for creating multiple drug that have completely changed the practice of medicine today. Among these were 6-mercaptopurine, one of the first effective leukemia treatments for children; and Azathioprine, the first immunosuppressant, which facilitated successful organ transplantation. For her work in the medical field Elion won the National Medal of Science and the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

  • Mary Anderson: On a 1903 road trip from Alabama to New York City Anderson was surprised to see that multiple motorists had to pull off the roads to wipe snow and ice from their windshields. In response to this she developed the first pair of windshield wipers, which she got a patent for in 1905. Although her invention was not widely used until approximately 10 years later, it is almost impossible to conceive contemporary cars without this innovation.

  • Ada Lovelace (Ada King): Often regarded as the first computer programmer, in the mid-1800s took unfinished Mathematician Charles Babbage’s plans for a giant clockwork like computing machine and expanded upon them. She took his initial plan, which he had deemed the analytical engine, and added gears and a punchcard operating system. This complex plan for operating system essentially acted as the preliminary design of a modern computer.

View these related blog posts on women
Female Inventors Who Have Changed Our Lives – Part 1
Female Inventors Who Have Changed Our Lives – Part 2
Emory Female Inventors
Celebrating Women Who Have Shaped Emory and Beyond

Interviews with two female inventors
Barbara Rothbaum – Treating Anxiety Disorders: Balancing the Real World and the Virtual World
Harriett Robinson – From Academic Researcher to Startup Scientist: Leaving the Lab to Pursue Your Innovation