5 Women Inventors

At the Women’s Museum of California, we often discuss how the lack of women in our history textbooks helps reinforce the idea that women have contributed very little to our nation’s history and puts limits on the way young girls see themselves. The same can be said about our school’s science textbooks.

Male scientists outnumber women in school textbooks by 3:1. The following is a list of women you may not have learned about in school but their inventions have significantly improved all of our lives for the better.

Mary Anderson

A Birmingham, Alabama woman, Mary Anderson is known for her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window.” The inspiration for the invention came to her while riding in a street car in New York City in the winter of 1902. The driver of the streetcar drove with both panes of the double front window open because of difficulty keeping the windshield clear of sleet.

A year later, in 1903, she applied for and received her patent. Her device consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. The lever could be operated to cause the spring-loaded arm to move back and forth across the windshield. A counterweight was used to ensure contact between the wiper and the window. When she received her patent, Anderson tried to sell it to a Canadian manufacturing firm, but the company refused: The device had no practical value, it said, and so was not worth any money. Though mechanical windshield wipers were standard equipment in passenger cars by around 1913, Anderson never profited from the invention.

Dianne Croteau

Croteau invented Actar 911, the CPR mannequin to teach people the techniques of CPR which have saved an untold number of lives.

She graduated from the Industrial Design Department at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She and her partners started their spectacular journey at The Studio Innova in 1984. This is where she invented the Actar 911. Actar 911 is a more inexpensive and portable version of the traditional CPR mannequin model, making it more available to the public. The mannequin made it easier for people to learn and exercise necessary safety precautions.

Martha Coston

At the age of 21, Martha J. Coston found herself widowed and with four children to support. When her husband, a former naval scientist died, Martha found plans for a pyrotechnic (signal) flare in his notebook and decided that she could design a signal flare that would work. She faced two big challenges before she could come up with a design. First, the flares had to be simple enough to use in coded color combinations. Second, they had to be bright, durable, and long-lasting so that they were effective tools for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communications.

After several years of working on the design, Martha hit on the idea of using fireworks technology as the basis of her design. Once Martha thought of using fireworks technology, she developed the original plan into an elaborate system of flares called Night Signals. She received her patent for her Pyrotechnic Night Signals on April 5, 1859. The U.S. Navy then paid her $20,000 for the patent rights to the flares. They also awarded Martha the contract to manufacture them.

Miriam Benjamin

Miriam Benjamin studied medicine and law at Howard University. She was the second black woman in the United States to receive a patent.

In 1888 Benjamin obtained a patent for her invention, the Gong and Signal Chair for hotels. She argued that the chair would “reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages.”  The chair worked when the person sitting would press a small button on the back of the chair which would then send a signal to a waiting attendant. A light would illuminate as well, allowing the attendant to see which guest needed help.

She lobbied for the invention to be used in Congress to signal congressional pages. Her chair is also a precursor to the signalling system used by passengers see to signal assistance from flight attendants.

Mary Dixon Kies

Mary Dixon Kies became the first American woman to receive a patent for her intention of a technique for weaving straw with silk and thread. This technique was cost-effective in making work bonnets and she became responsible for bolstering the failing New England hat economy. Dolley Madison, the First Lady to President James Madison, honored Mary for her work.

Interested in learning about more women inventors? Check out our digital timeline of women in STEM here


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