When you hear the word “inventor”, there’s a good chance that you immediately think of iconic men such as Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin. Of course, it makes sense—the majority of inventors have indeed been men. For most of history, women have faced a set of obstacles that hindered their ability to help society progress through the magic of patented invention. In many cases, the innovative contributions of women have been glossed over, misattributed, stolen, or flat-out rejected by patent givers simply because of their gender. Despite these hardships, many women throughout history still found a way to bring their brilliant ideas to life.
Sure, we know high-profile female inventors like Hedy Lamarr, but there are plenty more ingenious women whose names we rarely hear. But let’s take a look at a few of the many women in history who gave the world ground-breaking inventions that range from time-saving doohickeys to world-changing innovations.
What she invented: metal skis and surgical sutures
When it comes to Marie Marvingt, the question isn’t “what did she do?” but “what didn’t she do?”. Born in1875 in France, Marvingt won many prizes during her lifetime for her athletic skills, in fields including swimming, mountain climbing, riding and rifle shooting (this list could go on for days--she even knew a thing or two about circus skills). She was the first woman to climb a number of peaks in the Alps, the first woman to fly as bomber pilot in WWI, was a trained surgical nurse, and she devoted much of her life to developing the concept of the Air Ambulance for war-time medical needs. Somehow, she still managed to find time to invent a few things, such as metal skis that could be used to help an airplane land safely on sand, and a new type of surgical suture.
What she invented: waterproof diaper cover
Marion Donovan had innovation in her genes. Her inventor father encouraged her problem-solving skills when she was young, but she didn’t put them to much use until she became a homemaker and found the available household items to be lacking in usability. Diapers were one such problem: they caused rashes, leaked, and were downright dangerous (imagine trying to use a sharp pin to secure a squirming baby’s diaper). So she came up with a series of improvements that did away with pins, rashes and leaks, creating her prototype out of a shower curtain. Her patent for the first waterproof disposable cover, or “boater”, sold for a cool $1 million and went on to inspire later diaper versions, including the fully disposable diaper. Donovan used her earnings to fund her many other inventions, which included useful household items such as a self-draining soap dish, a device to help women easily zip the back of their dress, and user-friendly dental floss called DentaLoop.
What she invented: windshield wipers
Born in Alabama in 1866, Mary Anderson got the idea for windshield wipers during a winter visit to New York City, where she was inspired after watching the driver of a trolley car operating the vehicle with the front window open in order to see through the sleet. She created a lever-operated device that let a driver clear the windshield while driving, which used a handle to move a counter-weighted rubber blade across the glass. She was granted a 17-year patent for her device in 1903, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that windshield wipers became standard equipment for automobiles—and by then her patent had expired.
What she invented: wash-and-wear cotton fabrics
Look down at what you’re wearing and thank Ruth R. Benerito, because there’s a good chance that her innovations in the textile industry are saving you heaps of time and money. Benerito pretty much single-handedly saved the cotton industry, which was on its way into obscurity thanks to the newer, easier-to-care-for synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester that became popular in the 1930s and 40s. These synthetic fabrics didn’t need to be ironed, while cotton fabrics of the time wrinkled easily and needed more TLC than consumers were willing to give. So how did Benerito do it? After earning a PhD in Physical Chemistry, she went to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1950s, where she discovered a treatment that strengthened molecular bonds and resulted in wrinkle-free cotton fabrics. Expanding upon this research, she also discovered ways to make cotton fabrics stain- and flame-resistant. Consumers loved it, and began buying cotton fabrics once again—because really, who wants to spend hours washing and ironing?
What she invented: liquid paper
Back in the age of typewriters, typos and mistakes were a big problem. It meant retyping the entire page, rather than a simple tap of the backspace. Bette Nesmith Graham, a typist who decorated storefront windows on the side, solved this problem when she invented liquid paper. Graham, inspired by her artistic side job, said that "with lettering, an artist never corrects by erasing, but always paints over the error. So I decided to use what artists use.” She began using tempera water-based paint, and later refined the product which she began selling as Mistake Out in 1956. Over the years, liquid paper became an office staple, and by the time she sold her company in 1979, it was worth millions — $47.5 million, to be exact.
What she invented: the first compiler for a computer programming language
Dr. Grace Hopper accomplished quite a lot in her lifetime. She was an Admiral in the US Navy, earned a PhD in Mathematics, and even coined the now common word “debugging” when she literally removed a moth from a computer, but her most famous achievement is her role in transforming computer programming into what it is today. When Hopper first started working with computers (Harvard’s Mark I), programming was something of a complex mess. She believed that computers needed to be user-friendly if they were going to be of any use to society. For Hopper, the key to this was in creating programming languages in English. Despite being told it wasn’t possible, her FLOW-MATIC was the first English-based programming language and was a major influence for COBOL. The first compiler was created in 1952—without it, the world might be a very different place today.
What she invented: circular saw
Tabitha Babbitt was a member of a colonial American religious sect called the Shakers, a group known for both their gender equality and craftsmanship. Babbitt was a weaver rather than a carpenter, but she got the idea for the circular saw while watching a pair of men in the saw mill using a two-handled saw that only cut while being moved in one direction. She crafted her circular saw in 1813, and efficiency doubled. Unfortunately, neither Babbitt nor any other Shakers ever patented their many inventions due to Shaker beliefs that innovation should be open to everyone, which has caused some to doubt the true origin of Shaker inventions like the circular saw.
What she invented: the board game Monopoly
These days, Monopoly is known for tearing families apart with ruthless tactics and mysteriously disappearing bank notes. Surprisingly, it had a similarly divisive effect back when it first became popular. Just ask Elizabeth Magie, its inventor. Magie, a political progressive, created the game in 1903. Her goal was not to teach children about the joys of wealth, but rather, the opposite; she wanted to teach them about the unfairness of life and economic inequality. She was granted a patent for “The Landlord's Game” in 1904, partly due to its innovative circular board (games at the time featured a more linear play style). She formed a company and published the game herself, and attempted to sell it to larger game companies—however, the game was rejected for being too complicated. Despite this, The Landlord’s Game was the Cards Against Humanity of its time, and found its way to college campuses where students would create their own boards and apply Magie’s game rules. The game evolved over the years as players added their own features to their home-made boards. In 1935, Charles Darrow sold one version of The Landlord’s Game to Parker Brothers, calling it Monopoly. Shortly after, the game publisher also bought Magie’s original version for $500 in an effort to, well…monopolize the game. Darrow went down in board game history as the inventor of Monopoly, and the truth wasn’t discovered until Magie’s patents were unearthed during an unrelated legal battle in the 1970s.
These 7 women of genius are only the tip of the invention iceberg. There are tons more who deserve a spot on our list for their creative, practical and just plain useful inventions. Who did we miss?