You are here:

FREE Newsletter

Patent Points To Ponder - Mothers of Invention
Part 1: The first women to file a U.S. patent and two hollywood goddesses.
patent drawing
Martha J. Coston's
Women Inventors
• Part I - Women Inventors and the first women to get a patent
Part 2 - Women Inventors and the self-cleaming house
Part 3 - Women Inventors inventing drugs and working for NASA
Part 4 Women Inventors how many are there?
Take a Quiz on Women Inventors
Other Patent Points To Ponder
A Patent for a President
Fingerprints of Commerce
The Art of Toys
Three Part Harmony
The Art of Photography
The House That Innovation Built
Colors of Innovation
• Mothers of Invention
In 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.

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. 

Martha 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.

Margaret 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 Centennial 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 success.

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.

When Ann 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.

Next page > The Self-Cleaning house and the Slimsuit.

Subscribe to the Newsletter


From Mary Bellis,
Your Guide to Inventors.
FREE Newsletter. Sign Up Now!

Important disclaimer information about this About site.

Newsletters & RSSEmail to a friendAdd to
All Topics | Email Article | |
Our Story | Be a Guide | Advertising Info | News & Events | Work at About | Site Map | Reprints | Help
User Agreement | Ethics Policy | Patent Info. | Privacy Policy | Kids' Privacy Policy

©2006 About, Inc., A part of The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
Mental Health

Depression Self-Test Vitamins for Depression? Bipolar Red Flags Coping With Disasters Celebrities With Bipolar

What's Hot

Gyroscopes - Elmer Sperry and Charles Stark Draper Gyroscope...Angel AlcalaThe History of the BikiniRusi Taleyarkhan Jack Johnson