Honoring Female Inventors

May is National Inventors Month, a month set aside to recognize the curiosity and imagination of people who innovate and create.

Today and for the next two Fridays, I will be highlighting innovative women who have imagined, developed, tested, and perfected their creations.

Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794 – 1871)

The French naturalist started her scientific studies on the island of Sicily. While studying the paper nautilus (an unusual octopus that spends its life drifting the oceans near the surface), Jeanne Villepreux-Power decided to test a popular hypothesis. It was believed that the nautilus took its shell from another organism. She created the first glass aquarium to observe the nautilus in controlled conditions and proved that it made its own shell. She also designed a glass apparatus within a cage for studying shallow water creatures and a cage-like aquarium that could be raised and lowered to different depths.

Margaret E. Knight (1828 – 1914)

A Maine resident, 30-year-old Margaret Knight built a machine that folded and glued paper to create a flat-bottomed paper bag. When the paper bags became popular, a man stole the idea. In court, he argued that a woman “could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities.” Knight won her case and went on to invent over 100 different machines. She patented 20 of them, including a rotary engine, a shoe-cutting machine, and a window frame with a sash.

Josephine Cochrane (1839 – 1913)

After servants chipped her heirloom dishes, American inventor Josephine Cochrane invented a mechanical dishwasher that held dishes securely in a rack. At the same time, the pressure of a water sprayer cleaned them. In 1883, her husband died and left her with substantial debt. Determined to pay off her debts, Cochrane obtained a patent in 1886 and began marketing her dishwasher to hotels. In those days, women did not cross hotel lobbies alone. She later commented, “I thought I should faint at every step, but I didn’t—and I got an $800 order as my reward.” In 1893, her dishwasher was exhibited at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1915, her company was bought by Kitchen Aid.

Mary Anderson (1866 – 1953)

An Alabama resident, real estate developer and rancher, Mary Anderson visited New York City in 1902. When she rode in a trolley car, she noticed the driver had to open the panes of the front window to see through falling sleet. Back in Alabama, she set to work on a solution. Her device used a lever inside the vehicle to control a rubber blade on the windshield. Despite its effectiveness, car manufacturers dismissed Anderson’s invention. One Canadian firm commented, “We do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant its sale.” In 1922, Cadillac became the first manufacturer to include a windshield wiper on all its vehicles. Soon afterward, wipers became standard equipment.

Sarah Breedlove (1867 – 1919)

While working as a laundress, Sarah Breedlove observed that many black women struggled with hair loss and scalp diseases. The reasons: a lack of indoor plumbing and harsh ingredients in hair products. She developed her own life of hair care products specifically designed for African American hair. Hoping to evoke Parisian luxury, she branded the products with her new identity of Madam C. J. Walker. Later, she set up a college to train “hair culturists,” creating employment opportunities for thousands of African American women. Breedlove became the first female self-made millionaire in the United States.

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