Women Who Hold a Patent (more from the 20th century)

Fiona Waters

April 25, 2021

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Right now, the majority of patents filed throughout history were filed by men. The number of women included on patents has increased dramatically since four decades ago, but we're still on the way to gender parity. I, for one, am excited to be around for this "renaissance" of women inventors. In the coming years, you might be alive to see the invention of the next windshield wiper or bulletproof material. Still not impressed? Below are five women inventors whose contributions changed the world.

At her job developing a new type of fuel line for jet aircraft, an assistant spilled chemicals onto Patsy O'Connell's bright white shoes. It was these areas of her shoes, which had been covered by the chemical, that stayed clean even as other parts became dirty. In 1953, she patented Scotchgard™. Later, she was barred from tests for her new product's development at a time when women were not allowed in the textile mill where they took place. Despite this, she advanced to manager of technical development at 3M and received a number of honors throughout her career.

In Canada, since the 1960s, individuals with disabilities affecting speech production have been able to communicate through Blissymbols. This required an interpreter to translate the symbols someone pointed at. Inspired by a book written by Elizabeth Helfman, 12-year-old Rachel Zimmerman created the Blissymbols Printer in 1984. With her invention, touching a symbol would display the written word on a computer screen. Her invention made e-mail, language translations, and classrooms far more accessible for those who communicate with Blissymbols.

Interning at a hospital where patients were predominantly African American, Patricia Bath noticed that nearly half of the patients there were blind or visually impaired. This wasn't true of another hospital in the same area. Her research found that a lack of access to ophthalmic care among the black community was the cause. She went on to propose the new discipline of community ophthalmology, to establish the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness at UCLA, and to patent the Laserphaco Probe in 1988. This device removed a patient's cataracts using a new method that was minimally invasive.

Her name is Mária Telkes, but some call her the "Sun Queen." An immigrant from Hungary, she patented over 20 inventions related to capturing and storing solar energy up through 1990. Some of her most significant contributions, which she developed as part of MIT's Solar Energy Conversation Project, include the solar oven, the solar-powered water evaporator (to clean water for drinking), and the solar-heated Dover Sun House. The materials she used to create her oven likely influenced her later development of materials for insulation in space.

When you put on your cotton shirt, you probably don't think about how it got to you. For Sally Fox, it became all she could think about. Before she developed her strains of cotton plants in the ‘80s and ‘90s, cotton had to undergo an intensive dying process that produced a large amount of pollution. That is no longer the case for companies that use Sally's naturally colored cotton, FoxFibre, which now grows in different shades of brown, red, and green. Her plants are now protected by a patent and plant variety protection.

I was originally only going to write two short articles looking at women inventors through the ages, but you know what? There are just too many amazing women to highlight. From paper bags to Monopoly, women have been behind the scenes in the creation of a number of modern conveniences. Look out for an article highlighting women inventors of the 21st century.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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