The computer algorithm, dishwasher, fire escape, paper bag and windshield wipers are just some of the inventions women have created. Although female inventors haven’t always gotten the recognition they deserve, they’ve made an incalculable impact on modern life. Here are five female inventors whose inventions are still an important part of today’s world.
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Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-2019), was an ophthalmologist and laser scientist who became “the first” in many achievements, breaking racial and gender barriers. She was the first black ophthalmology resident at New York University’s School of Medicine. She was also the first black female surgeon at UCLA and the first female black faculty member in their Ophthalmology Department. A public health advocate for eradicating preventable blindness, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976. Bath also was a researcher and inventor. Her work with cataracts led her to develop a method and device for removing cataracts — the laserphaco probe. Her idea was ahead of the technology at the time and it took almost five years to become operational and patent ready. Using her own device, Dr. Bath restored vision to several people who had been blind for decades. Today, the laserphaco probe is used worldwide. Dr. Bath will be posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2022.
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When the Titanic sank, lifeboats saved about 700 passengers. That number would have been higher had there been enough lifeboats. The people who survived, and countless others who survived ship disasters over the years, owe a debt of gratitude to Maria Beasley (1847-1904), best known for her improvements made to the life raft. Her life raft design transformed the life raft in several invaluable ways: making it airtight to protect provisions; ensuring it could be easily lowered into the water without harming the boat; making it fireproof; and adding guard rails. Before these updates, life rafts were basically flat wood boards that were difficult to store.
Between the late 1870s and the late 1890s, Beasley obtained 15 patents based on her engineering knowledge. Her other inventions ranged from steam generators and anti-derailment devices for trains, to the barrel looper – a device that led to increased efficiency and speed in barrel making. Just imagine all of the lives she saved because of her invention.
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As a young German housewife in the early 1900s, Melitta Bentz (1873-1950) made coffee for her husband each morning — but it was a laborious process that involved cleaning out residual coffee gunk from the bottom of a brass pot. Filters were made of cloth at that time, and expensive. Bentz improvised a filter out of her son’s notebook paper. Using a nail, she created holes in the brass pot’s bottom and lined it with the paper. She put coffee grounds in the pot, put a mug underneath it and poured boiling water over the grounds. This led to a revolution in the coffee industry, with the creation of a cheap and disposable filter. Her namesake company, Melitta, is still family owned and has grown to over 5,800 employees worldwide — and is the leading brand of coffee filters sold in North America. In addition to the filter, the Melitta company has been responsible for other innovations over the years. They were the first to vacuum pack ground coffee in Germany, created the first filter coffeemaker and originated the use of aluminum foil. Next time you take a sip of coffee, think of Melitta!
In 1955, almost all American babies used cloth diapers. Today, about 95 percent of American babies wear disposable diapers. A mother herself, Marion Donavan (1917-1998) was dissatisfied with using cloth diapers. She found them ineffective, and the rubber pants babies needed to wear caused rashes. So she came up with an idea. Donovan sewed pieces of a shower curtain into a diaper cover. She used snaps rather than safety pins to hold it together. This evolved into a diaper cover made from parachute cloth that allowed for an insertable absorbent diaper panel. She called it “the boater.” After facing rejection from several manufacturers who had no interest in her idea, she made and sold it herself. Patented in 1951, she sold the rights to her invention for $1 million. That wasn’t the end of Donovan’s inventions. She received a total of 20 patents, including one for a pull cord for zipping up the back of a dress and a new kind of dental floss.
The world lost a groundbreaking female scientist when Stephanie Kwolek died in 2014, at age 90. Standing at under five feet tall, she was a pioneering powerhouse with her invention of Kevlar. Growing up, Kwolek had an interest in sewing and fabrics, as well as chemistry. As a chemist for the DuPont Company, she was tasked with developing a stronger fiber material that could survive extreme conditions. This led to her invention of the synthetic fibers which came to be known as Kevlar. Stronger than steel, but light, Kevlar is so tightly spun that it can absorb and decrease the energy of a projectile. It’s also heat and puncture resistant. The best-known Kevlar applications are bullet proof vests and body armor, but the material is also used in the aviation, automotive and mining industries. Kwolek was a recipient of the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s National Medal of Technology, and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, among others.