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Women of Invention

Mary Hallock Greenewalt, half-length portrait, at electric light "color organ", which she invented

*Mary Hallock Greenewalt, half-length portrait, at electric light “color organ”, which she invented

The desire to tinker, create and invent is universal.  It doesn’t matter who or what you are–a scientist, business person, layperson, man, woman or child–if there’s a problem, we want to figure out how to solve it by inventing a new way of doing things or improving on an existing way.

Women inventors have had to overcome significant hurdles when it comes to patents.  Researching the history of women patent holders can be challenging, because in this country’s early days, many women inventors didn’t use their own names on patent applications.  They may have used a husband’s or other man’s name or just used initials to hide their identity.  There were also the women who worked with men to patent an idea, but were left off the record, and some women’s inventions were never patented or were sold to a corporation who then patented the idea.

The good news is historians and scholars are bringing to light the history and work of  women inventors and how their innovations have improved society. Our guide Women of Invention: Women Inventors and Patent Holders is a good place to start learning about these amazing women and the struggles they endured.

Title page of Women Inventors to Whom Patents Have Been Granted by the United States Government, 1790 to July 1, 1888

Title page of Women Inventors to Whom Patents Have Been Granted by the United States Government, 1790 to July 1, 1888

In the spirit of Women’s History Month here is a small selection of inventions that have made a significant contribution to society, science, and technology:

Kevlar (patent #3, 671,542- filing date 1969/ issue date 1972):  Stephanie L. Kwolek, a chemist who works in high-performance textiles, invented the Kevlar aramid fiber. Kevlar is used in radial tires, bulletproof vests, skis, and in the construction of airplanes and boats.

Laser Cataract Surgery (patent # 4,744, 360-filing date 1986/ issue date 1988): Patricia Bath, an ophthalmologist and the first African American woman to receive a medical patent, invented a laser based surgical device to remove cataracts (laserphaco). Her device made cataract surgery less invasive and more accurate- she also has subsequent patents for instruments related to cataract removal.

Improvement in paper bag machines (patent #220, 925filing/issue date 1879) : Margaret Knight has 27 separate patents ranging from rotors to automobile engines. However, she is best known for a “satchel bottom class” or paper bag machine, which made flat bottomed paper bags. The concept of this machine is still used today to make paper bags. (The Smithsonian has the model of the “satchel bottom class” )

*For information about Mary ( Elizabeth) Hallock Greenwalt and her inventions see the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection  


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