As women, we are naturally drawn to ingenuity. How many of us can rattle off a list of female family members who crafted amazing recipes once unheard of or devised some new way to MacGyver home repair solutions? Our minds are wired for possibility it seems.
This week, we honor five women who in addition to the mentally taxing process of inventing, they also battled against the skepticism of a society that limited the value of women and what they could (or were allowed to) create in society.
Here are 5 Women to Watch alongside their ingenious inventions, and what we can learn through their creative captures:
- Hedy Lamarr- Wireless Communications Inventor. Although a famous Austrian actress at the time, Hedy Lamarr was just as creative off the screen as she was on it. Following her emigration to the United States, she began pioneering the field of wireless communications with her co-inventor George Anthiel. Together, they developed a "Secret Communications System" to help fight the Nazis in World War II. By influencing radio frequencies between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being swooped by enemy lines. While Hedy and her partner received a patent in 1941, the widespread gratitude (and impact) of their invention was not realized until decades later when it was utilized in Navy ships and various military applications. Even more recently, the invention has fueled the digital communications whirlwind, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible. Proving she was much more than just another pretty actress, Hedy sidestepped stereotypes and rightfully received a place among the 20th century's most significant women inventors. Talk about brains and beauty! What an enlightened society we would enjoy if we put a spotlight on each of those qualities like Hedy did.
- Mary Anderson – Windshield Wiper Inventor. If you’re in rain, snow or fog, you know just how important windshield wipers are. And chances are, you’ve never wondered much about them otherwise. While many of the inventions surrounding the automobile are credited to men, our windshield wiper allies were invented by a woman. Inventor Mary Anderson received a patent for her car-window cleaning device in 1903.
Mary was inspired during a trip to New York City when her tourist state-of-mind noticed that streetcar drivers (cabs) had to open the windows of their cars when it rained in order to see properly. Being pro-active and solution oriented, Mary invented a swinging arm device with a rubber blade that was operated by the driver from within the vehicle using a lever.
Many people were initially doubtful, thinking the swinging blades would distract drivers, but by 1916 windshield wipers were an automatic feature on most vehicles.
Not only was Mary quick to utilize hands-on gumption, but she also filtered past the naysayers and saw her invention become a standard issued commodity.
- Ruth Handlet: Barbie Doll Inventor. No matter who you are or where you’re from, chances are you can’t recall your childhood without an appearance from Barbie. Arguably one of the most famous toys in American history, the Barbie doll is a staple in the playrooms of little girls everywhere and a must-have on Santa’s list since the 60s. Along with co-founding the legendary Mattel toy company, inventor Ruth Handler also designed the iconic doll herself.
While watching her daughter and her friends play with paper dolls, Ruth was inspired to invent a grown-up, three-dimensional doll that girls could use to act out their future dreams. She named her new Barbie doll invention after her daughter Barbara, and later named Barbie’s counterpart after her son; Ken.
After premiering at the Toy Fair in 1959, Barbie became an instant hit. The success of the doll propelled Mattel to become a publicly owned company that soon made Fortune's list of the 500 largest U.S. industrial companies. Ruth served as the company's president for several of its most prosperous years.
Along with being an inventor and businesswoman, Ruth is also a breast cancer survivor – an experience she used to lead another company, Nearly Me, which manufactured realistic-looking breast prostheses.
If we learn anything from Ruth, it is to seize the window of inspiration, however trivial it may seem. Whether it’s overhearing something your children are discussing or creatively looking at the confines of an illness, let inspiration move you in all its mysterious ways before it hits the snooze button.
- Marion Donovan- Disposable Diapers Inventor. Like many inventors, Marion’s key inventions sprouted from childhood experiences. Her well of inspiration primarily came from hanging around the manufacturing plant ran by her resourceful father and uncle.
Years later, as a post-World War II housewife and mother of two, Marion made good use of the ingenuity she witnessed in her youth. Frustrated by the unpleasant, repetitive task of changing her youngest child's soiled cloth diapers, bed sheets and clothing, she decided to craft a diaper cover to keep her baby – and the surrounding area – dry. She sat down at her sewing machine with a shower curtain and, after several endeavors she cracked the code and completed the first waterproof diaper cover.
Marion’s design did not cause diaper rash and did not pinch the child's skin (unlike the rubber baby pants that were currently on the market). She continued to refine and perfect her invention, adding snap fasteners in place of the dangerous safety pins that were commonly used. The problem was, no manufacturers would even consider her invention. Everyone told her that the idea was excessive and impractical. Not to be deterred, Marion struck out on her own, and the diapers were a success from the day they debuted at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949. Marion received a patent in 1951 and promptly sold the rights to Keko Corporation. She continued perfecting the diaper to eventually concoct a fully disposable diaper –what is now known as Pampers®.
Falling in love with the challenge and creativity of the invention realm, Marion earned a total of 20 patents in her lifetime (the majority unrelated to diapers). Not only does Marion deserve the never-ending gratitude of new parents around the globe, but she also serves as a pillar example of the steadfast spirit. When you have a great idea or product, do not let a series of “no’s” or talks of your “silly” idea hold you back. You could very well be in possession of the next ingenious gem.
- Sally Fox – Foxfibre Colored Cotton Inventor. While our society is drifting towards more humane, environmental and ethical production methods, there is still an unfortunate tendency to value profit over intellect. People may know a practice is harmful, but continue to do it (and support it) anyway because it produces an in-demand product at a condensed price. Fortunately, there are inventors who work persistently to advance more responsible solutions. Sally Fox is one such inventor and her naturally colored cotton dubbed, Foxfibre is one such product.
Before Sally and Foxfibre hit the block, a naturally colored cotton could only be spun by hand – which was such a extensive and laborious process that businesses instead chose to take white cotton, bleach it, dye it and spin it on a machine. This gave people the colored fabrics they wanted, but also created a lot of pollution through the bleaching and dying processes. Sadly, there weren't any reliable alternatives available –until Sally came along in the late 80s and modernized the fabric industry.
While working as a pollinator for a cotton breeder looking to engineer more pest-resistant plants, Sally began breeding brown and green cotton, picking out the best seeds that created the longest fibers and replanting them year after year. Ultimately, she created not one, but two colored cottons that could be spun on a machine, and she purchased a small lot of land to grow them. Sally even received Plant Variety Protection Certificates (the plant equivalent of patents) for the new cottons. Yes, she owns right to a plant!
By the early 90s, Sally had a $10-million-dollar environmentally friendly business that produced naturally colored cotton for major companies like Levi's, Espirit, Land's End and L.L. Bean. She continues to make new naturally colored cottons to this day. Each new color takes about 10 years to produce – but, for Sally, the patience is worth the payoff and the ethical satisfaction.
Sally teaches us doing things the right way may take more time, more persuasion, and more mental energy, but the self-satisfactory of holding true to your priorities and passions at the same time merits the determination.
Thank you ladies for showcasing brains, beauty, pro-activeness and drive with your life work. May we remember no idea is “too silly” and always fight for the accolades and rights we deserve for our work. No matter what our path is in life, the light bulb is always ready to strike during the moments we least expect it.