1809, Mary Dixon Kies received the first
U. S. patent issued to a woman. Kies, a Connecticut native, invented a
process for weaving straw with silk or thread. First Lady Dolley Madison
praised her for boosting the nation’s hat industry. Unfortunately, the
patent file was destroyed in the great Patent Office fire in 1836.
Martha J. Coston's
Until about 1840, only 20 other patents
were issued to women. The inventions related to apparel, tools, cook stoves,
and fire places.
In 1845, Sarah Mather received
a patent for the invention of a submarine telescope and lamp. This was
a remarkable device that permitted sea-going vessels to survey the depths
of the ocean.
J. Coston perfected then patented her deceased husband’s idea for
a pyrotechnic flare. Coston’s husband, a former naval scientist, died leaving
behind only a rough sketch in a diary of plans for the flares. Martha developed
the idea into an elaborate system of flares called Night Signals that allowed
ships to communicate messages nocturnally. The U. S. Navy bought the patent
rights to the flares. Coston’s flares served as the basis of a system of
communication that helped to save lives and to win battles. Martha credited
her late husband with the first patent for the flares, but in 1871 she
received a patent for an improvement exclusively her own.
Knight was born in 1838. She received her first patent at the age
of 30, but inventing was always part of her life. Margaret or ‘Mattie’
as she was called in her childhood, made sleds and kites for her brothers
while growing up in Maine. When she was just 12 years old, she had an idea
for a stop-motion device that could be used in textile mills to shut down
machinery, preventing workers from being injured. Knight eventually received
some 26 patents. Her machine that made flat-bottomed paper bags is still
used to this very day!
The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial
Exposition was a World Fair-like event held to celebrate the amazing progress
of the century-old United States of America. The leaders of early feminist
and women’s suffrage movements had to aggressively lobby for the inclusion
of a woman’s department in the exposition. After some firm pressing, the
Women’s Executive Committee was established, and a separate Woman’s
Pavilion erected. Scores of women inventors either with patents or with
patents pending displayed their inventions. Among them was Mary Potts and
her invention Mrs. Potts’ Cold Handle Sad Iron patented in 1870.
Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in
1893 also included a Woman’s Building. A unique safety elevator invented
by multi-patent holder Harriet Tracy and a device for lifting and
transporting invalids invented by Sarah Sands were among the many
items featured at this event.
Traditionally women’s undergarments
consisted of brutally tight corsets meant to shape women’s waists into
unnaturally small forms. Some suggested that the reason women seemed so
fragile, expected to faint at anytime, was because their corsets prohibited
proper breathing. Enlightened women’s groups throughout the nation resoundingly
agreed that less restrictive underclothing was in order. Susan Taylor
Converse’s one-piece flannel Emancipation Suit, patented August 3,
1875, eliminated the need for a suffocating corset and became an immediate
A number of women’s groups lobbied
for Converse to give up the 25-cent royalty she received on each Emancipation
Suit sold, an effort that she rejected. Linking the ‘emancipation’ of women
from constrictive undergarments to her own freedom to profit from her intellectual
property, Converse responded "With all your zeal for women’s rights, how
could you even suggest that one woman like myself should give of her head
and hand labor without fair compensation?"
In 1912, the beautiful soprano opera
singer and actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lillian
Russell, patented a combination dresser-trunk built solidly enough
to remain intact during travel and doubled as a portable dressing room.
Silver Screen superstar Hedy
Lamarr (Hedwig Kiesler Markey) with the help of composer George
Antheil invented a secret communication system in an effort to help the
allies defeat the Germans in World War II. The invention, patented in 1941,
manipulated radio frequencies between transmission and reception to develop
an unbreakable code so that top-secret messages could not be intercepted.
Julie Newmar, a living Hollywood
film and television legend, is a women inventor. The former Catwoman patented
ultra-sheer, ultra-snug pantyhose. Known for her work in films such as
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Slaves of Babylon, Newmar has also
appeared recently in Fox Television’s Melrose Place and the hit feature-film
To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Love Julie Newmar.
Ruffles, fluted collars, and pleats
were very popular in Victorian-era clothing. Susan Knox’s fluting
iron made pressing the embellishments easier. The trademark featured the
inventor’s picture and appeared on each iron.
Moore was a Peace Corps volunteer, she observed mothers in French
West Africa carrying their babies securely on their backs. She admired
the bonding between the African mother and child, and wanted the same closeness
when she returned home and had her own baby. Moore and her mother designed
a carrier for Moore’s daughter similar to those she saw in Togo. Ann Moore
and her husband formed a company to make and market the carrier, called
the Snugli (patented in 1969). Today babies all over the world are
being carried close to their mothers and fathers.
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