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Some of the Greatest Inventors Are Women

Do you know who invented liquid paper or the first solar home heating system? Well, those inventors were women. And with Women’s History Month coming to an end, and the celebration of Ada Lovelace Day last week, we tapped into author Susan Casey’s book, Women Invent! and came up with 14 women inventors you probably never heard of.

Do you know who invented liquid paper or the first solar home heating system? Well, those inventors were women. And with Women’s History Month coming to an end, and the celebration of Ada Lovelace Day last week, we tapped into author Susan Casey’s book, Women Invent! and came up with 14 women inventors you probably never heard of.

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Patsy Sherman


Patsy Sherman, with partner Sam Smith, invented the fabric protector Scotchgard:
In the early 1950s while working at the 3M Co., Patsy Sherman and her co-worker Sam Smith were trying to create a new latex or kind of rubber for use in the fuel lines of the then-newly developed jet engines. Accidentally, some of the material spilled onto the tennis shoe of one of the technicians. When it dried, Sherman and others tried to remove it with soapy water and organic solvents. Nothing would even wet the spill.

“No one had ever thought of a fabric that could repel both oil and water. And the spot was cleaner than the rest of the shoe. We thought, ‘Forget those aircraft hoses! Maybe there’s something bigger here.'”

She and Smith went on to create Scotchgard and the fabric protector became used worldwide.

Bette Nesmith Graham


Bette Nesmith Graham invented Liquid Paper:
In the 1950s, when secretary Bette Nesmith Graham put her fingers on the keys of the office’s new electric typewriters, the machine’s keys were so sensitive that they jumped into action, typing unwanted letters. Erasing the mistakes created a big mess. She needed a solution. And as a divorcee in her 20s with a young son to support, she also needed to keep her job at Texas Bank and Trust in Dallas. What to do?

Also an artist, she got an idea while painting holiday windows at the bank, her part-time job. She brushed paint in the wrong spot and thought, Why not just paint over it? So she did. And then it occurred to her: Why not just paint over mistakes at the office too? Her challenge was to create a quick-drying paint. It later became known as Liquid Paper.

In 1979 Bette Graham sold the company to the Gillette Co. for $47.5 million.

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Maria Telkes


Maria Telkes invented the first solar home heating system:
Maria Telkes was fascinated with the sun. She went to high school in Budapest, Hungary, and gained a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Budapest. She traveled to the United States in 1925 and eventually joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Solar Energy Research Project.

While she was there, a Boston sculptor, Amelia Peabody, approached Maria and offered to pay for construction of a solar heated house on land she owned in Dover, Massachusetts. The house was to be designed by architect Eleanor Raymond. Maria was to design the solar-heating system.

That was in 1948. “I envisage the day when solar heat collecting shelters, like power stations, will be built apart from the house,” she told W. Clifford Harvey of The Christian Science Monitor. “One such solar-heating building could develop enough heat from the sun for pumping into an entire community of homes.”

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, actress, 1940s screen siren and inventor of frequency hopping torpedo guidance system:
Living in Vienna just before the start of WWII, Lamarr was a film actress and was married to Fritz Mandl, an Austrian armaments manufacturer. She accompanied him to gatherings and listened and suggested ideas when he spoke with his colleagues about arms design and the topic of a radio-controlled torpedo.

But Lamarr was not interested in sticking around. In 1938, as German forces invaded Austria, she escaped and headed for Hollywood. While under contract to MGM, she met composer, George Antheil, and the two came up with the idea of using an unpredictable signal to guide torpedoes. It was based on the idea of frequency hopping. The signal would hop between different frequencies making its pattern impossible to predict and hard, if not impossible, to jam or interfere with. The two gave their 1942 patent to the U.S. government. While it was not used during the war, the concept they outlined is used widely today for wireless internet transmission.

Madam C.J. Walker


Madam C.J. Walker, the first African-American millionaire and developer of hair products for African-American women:
Madam C.J. Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana cotton plantation in 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War. As a child, she worked as a sharecropper in the cotton fields alongside her parents, who were former slaves. They lived in a shack with no windows and slept on a dirt floor. When she was 7, both her parents died. At age 14 she married. At 18, she gave birth to a daughter, Leila, and by age 20 she was a widow.

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Like many African-American women of the day, she straightened her hair. When it began falling out, though, she invented a conditioning formula containing both shampoo and pomade, which she applied with a hot comb. She also brushed her hair vigorously. The treatment worked.

She started manufacturing and selling Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower and 16 other products. She went door-to-door in the African-American community giving beauty treatments as part of her sales pitch. She trained others, called Walker Agents, to sell her product as she did. They wore white blouses and black skirts and carried her products in briefcases. Before her death in 1919, she had more than 2,000 agents selling her line of products and demonstrating the “Walker System” of treating hair. She opened a chain of beauty salons and a beauty school, Leila College.

She was the first female African-American millionaire.

Martha Coston


Martha Coston invented pyrotechnic signal flares:
Martha Coston of Philadelphia was only 21 in 1847 when her husband, Benjamin, an inventor for the Navy, unexpectedly died of pneumonia. Alone, it was up to Coston to support herself and her four small children.

Her invention efforts began when she found a notebook with her husband’s ideas for signal flares. He thought they could be used to communicate ship-to-ship or ship-to-land. But when she tested the models he had created they didn’t work. At first she worked unsuccessfully with several chemists. Then while watching a fireworks show, she realized that the signals might be able to work using the technology of fireworks. So she sought the advice of experts in that field.

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Bingo! In 1859, just before the Civil War, she patented a system of red, white, and green “Pyrotechnic Night Signals.” The U.S. Navy bought the rights to the signals for $20,000 and awarded her the contract to manufacture them. During the war, when ships were in trouble or in heavy fog, they set off one of her signals. So did people who were shipwrecked. Coston gained a second U.S. patent in 1871, and also patented her signals in England, France, Holland, Denmark, Italy and Sweden. She sold the signals to navies, shippers and yacht clubs.

She is credited with saving the lives of many, many people all over the world.

Sally Fox invented spinnable colored cotton:
In 1982, entomologist Sally Fox developed the first commercially spinnable colored cotton. She founded FoxFibre to sell her natural cotton for use in clothes and linens.

Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar:
In 1971, while working as a chemist at Dupont, Stephanie Kwolek, invented Kevlar, a thread that is five times stronger than the same weight of steel, and is now used to make radial tires, airplanes, boat shells, protective gear for the military, and bulletproof vests. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995.

Rose Totino invented frozen pizza:
Rose Totino, daughter of Italian immigrants who settled in Minneapolis, opened a take out pizza restaurant in the 1950s at a time when almost no one in the U.S. outside of New York or Los Angeles, had ever heard of pizza. It was a big success. After she invented a way to freeze pizza crust so that her customers could bake at home, she a company to sell it, patented her idea in 1979, and Totino’s Pizza became the top selling frozen pizza nationwide. She eventually sold her business to the Pillsbury Company in 1975 for $20 million.

Lydia O’Leary invented makeup foundation:
Lydia O’Leary’s career choices were limited by the fact that a port wine birthmark covered half her face. So she created a makeup foundation that would cover it. In 1932, she became the first person to receive a patent for a makeup foundation. She founded the Covermark Corporation, now an international company. Her foundation continues to benefit people with birthmarks, scars and other facial blemishes.

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Marion Donovan invented the disposable diaper:
In 1946, Marion Donovan sold her invention of the disposable diaper for about $1 million “in order to devote more time to developing other inventions.”

Gertrude Elion invented drugs to fight childhood leukemia:
In 1991, when Gertrude Elion was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in recognition of her patents for drugs to fight childhood leukemia and ones that facilitated kidney transplants, she said, “I’m the first but I’m sure I won’t be the last.” And she wasn’t. She also received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988.

Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Brown both invented Nystatin:
Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Brown invented Nystatin, which was introduced in 1954 as world’s first useful antifungal antibiotic. They donated all Nystatin royalties-more than $13 million by the time the patent expired-to academic science through the nonprofit Research Corporation.

Susan Casey is author of Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World (Chicago Review Press) and Kids Inventing: A Handbook for Young Inventors (Jossey-Bass/Wiley).

Related: The Most Influential Women in Technology