Who do you think of when you are asked who the great inventors are? You would probably name Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell or the Wright Brothers. Can you think of any women inventors? It may be a little hard for you to name any. However, the history of women inventors is as long as that of men. The social prejudice that women are rarely successful in areas of science prevents us from thinking of them.
It may come as a surprise that many things we use in our everyday life were invented by numerous women inventors. Shampoo, miniskirts, shopping bags, sanitary pads, dish washers and washing machines were all invented by women. Jin Hee Park, professor at Dongguk University, told us about scholars who are involved in women’s studies who are struggling to find traces of women’s achievements in history and rewrite them. They demonstrated that history so far has been written from a male-dominated point of view in which women were almost irrelevant to invention. They assert that the history of invention, science and technology has been traditionally focused on men’s domains such as weapons, factories and industrial laboratories. As a result, women’s inventions and their activities have been hidden from view. However, while male engineers and laborers were endeavoring to produce new mechanical instruments to enhance efficiency, women were also making similar efforts in their place.
As mentioned above, the history of women inventors is pretty long. One of the first American women inventors was Sybilla Masters. In 1715, she earned a patent for a method of making cornmeal. About one hundred years later, another woman inventor, Mary Kies (1752~1837), became the first woman to receive a U.S. patent in 1809 for her method of weaving straw with silk. The Patent Act of 1790 opened the door for anyone, male or female, to protect his or her invention with a patent but because in many states women could not legally own property independent of their husbands, many women inventors didn't bother to patent their new inventions. Mary Kies broke that pattern. With her new method, Kies could make and sell beautiful hats such as this one, and, by law, no one else could sell hats just like hers.
Women have often been thought of as weak in science and technology throughout the ages and across many countries. According to Lynne Cheney, the writer of the book A is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women, historians have painted a picture of women inventors in the 19th century as a group that faced and often overcame significant hurdles to achieve their goals. Their one common bond is an innate curiosity that spurs them on to find something new, something better. Still, nowadays, according to data researched by the National Institute for Supporting Women in Science and Technology, the percentage of women engineering graduates was under 30 percent in 2006. Today, only about 10 percent of all patents are awarded to women. In spite of these barren circumstances, the stories of many women who were successful in their fight against prejudice, placing themselves in history, give us some sense of aspiration.
The Housewife Who Became a CEO
- Melitta Bentz (1873-1950)
With the discovery of coffee in the 13th century, inventors began a search to find the best coffee preparation method. Unfortunately, all the complicated early devices invented to improve the taste and flavor of coffee proved merely decorative, doing little to eliminate coffee residues in the cup. Three hundred years of coffee culture passed until an enterprising young woman changed the way in which coffee was made, developing a method now adopted in most countries around the world. In 1908, Melitta Bentz, a housewife from Dresden, Germany had this revolutionary idea. Why not use paper to filter out unwanted residues? So she punctured the bottom of a brass pot and lined it with blotting paper taken from the notebook of her oldest son. The result was perfectly filtered coffee without bitterness or grounds. In 1908, Bentz received a patent registration for her "Filter Top Device lined with Filter Paper." The 35-year-old housewife was immediately transformed into a businesswoman and, during the same year of her invention, the company bearing her name was established. Now, the Melitta Group is one of the world’s largest companies and produces a wide variety of consumer products including foils and wraps, air cleaners and humidifiers, vacuum bags and cleaning products, and, of course, under the Melitta brand name, the full range of coffee-preparation products for which the company is best known.
Not Just an Actress But…
- Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000)
Have you ever heard of the "Spread Spectrum?" It's the technical basis that makes wireless communications work in cellular phones, faxes, and other wireless communications systems. It's currently utilized in "wireless" LANS, integrated bar code scanners, palmtop computers, radio modem devices for warehousing, digital dispatches, digital cellular telephone communications, city/state or country networks for passing faxes, computer data, e-mail and multimedia data. Its use is on the verge of potentially explosive commercial development, especially in relation to the internet.
Although better known for her movie career, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr also became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications. The international beauty icon, along with her co-inventor George Anthiel, developed a "Secret Communications System" to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.
Lamarr and Anthiel received a patent in 1941, but the enormous significance of their invention was not realized until decades later. As is the case with many of the famous women inventors, Lamarr received very little recognition of her innovative talent at the time, but recently she has been showered with praise for her groundbreaking invention. In 1997, she was honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award. Later in the same year, Lamarr became the first female recipient of the BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, a prestigious lifetime accomplishment prize for inventors that is dubbed "The Oscar of Inventing." Proving she was much more than just another pretty face, Lamarr shattered stereotypes and earned a place among the 20th century's most important women inventors. She truly was a visionary whose technological acumen was far ahead of its time.
49 Patents in just One Lifetime
- Beulah Henry (1887-1973)
"I cannot make up my mind whether it is a drawback or an advantage to be so utterly ignorant of mechanics as I am, I know nothing about mechanical terms and I am afraid I do make it rather difficult for the draughtsmen to whom I explain my ideas, but in the factories where I am known, they are exceedingly patient with me because they seem to have a lot of faith in my inventions." Beulah Henry of Memphis, Tennessee created about 110 inventions and held 49 patents. Beulah Henry was considered one of the "Lady Edisons" for her prolific career in inventing.
Her first invention, a vacuum ice cream freezer, was patented in 1912. Her inventions ranged from copy machines that could reproduce four typewritten copies of a document at a time, to toys. Henry solved the problem of how to have cash registers write like typewriters for the National Cash Register Company, which was one of her greatest inventions. Henry was hired by a number of companies to develop products for them, which ranged from household devices to envelope machines. While many of her inventions were patented in the names of the companies who hired her, Beulah Henry was atypical among early women inventors in that she was able to profit from her inventions, and received credit during her lifetime for her prolific work.
Where Do the Modern Women of Korea Stand Now?
In Korea nowadays, many women inventors in every part of society are endeavoring to elevate the quality of life. According to the Ministry Of Education, Science and Technology, Korea took the 14th place in technology and 5th place in science in 2008. The RAND (Research and Development) Corporation of the U.S. classified Korea among Scientifically Advanced Countries along with countries like the U.S. and Germany. To encourage the growth of women inventors, by creating circumstances in which women are familiar with sciences, technology is important.
One such effort can be found in the Korea International Women's Invention Exposition (KIWIE) held by the Korea Women Invention Association. It has been in charge of women’s inventions in Korea, including supporting the merchandising women’s inventions, holding a women’s invention fair, supporting women inventors’ attendance at international invention fairs, providing patent counseling, supporting the prototyping of women’s inventions, and holding the annual exhibition of women’s inventions. Through their activities, many women in Korea have been supported with patents.
The WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering) Program is a mentor program conducted between girl students in middle and high schools and university students with women scientists. Its basic purpose is to help women to advance in science and technology not only in Korea but also in England and the U.S. Last year in Korea, 38,000 middle and high school students and 13,000 university students took part in this program. Students who took part in this program are saying it helped them to think outside of the prejudice prevailing in our society and to decide on their careers especially in science and technology.
What Can Modern Koreans Do?
To improve women’s life, to see from women’s point of view would be a start. Our society needs more women inventors, and a spirit of discovery and an attempt to change absurdity may be the keys to invention. What led the abovementioned women inventors to the world of invention was their curiosity that helped them to find something new, something better. Women inventors still have a tough road. Hopefully, as you see more of these creative women, their stories will inspire future generations of women inventors. Indeed, people of today are waiting for many more women inventors as always. Items invented by women change the world. Women have invented a lot of items which were recorded in the history of mankind based on their outstanding emotions and creative brains. As many normal women have proved, invention is not an area that is open only to male scientists but it’s open to all women who have overcome inconveniences in their lives and try to achieve a better way of living.
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