I've been thinking about women's ingenuity a lot recently; after all, crises like the one we're facing now fuel innovation. They especially fuel innovation from those who are on the frontlines, in desperate need of solutions.
That's why I'd bet good money that many of the inventions and advancements that will help get us through this COVID-19 pandemic will be thanks to women's ingenuity. Women hold 76% of healthcare jobs and are on the front lines treating patients with coronavirus, and women are also 75% of primary caregivers and spend 50% more time caring for family members than men do. And they make almost 80% of the healthcare decisions for their families, to boot. Whether it's medical breakthroughs, new ways to manufacture protective gear, or inventions for running a home while managing children and work, I expect we'll see many more life-changing inventions from women in the weeks and months to come.
The gender gap in U.S. patents bears this out: fewer than 8% of U.S. patents list a woman as the primary inventor.
Some may see this as a sign that women simply make fewer inventions than men. But there's a lot more at play than that, says USA Today, which explains that the "disparity is due in part to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office being more likely to reject patents with women as sole applicants" and that "when patents sought by women are approved, they are more likely to have added parameters that made the description of the patents far more detailed" and "lower the scope of the patent, making it weaker and less valuable."
But just because women aren't as often heralded and celebrated for their inventions, that doesn't mean that they're not out there inventing things. And until other women start getting the credit they deserve, let's celebrate these five women for changing our lives in big and small ways.
1. Computer algorithms, invented by Ada Lovelace in 1843
Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, worked with inventor Charles Babbage on his computing machine called the Analytical Engine. While helping him translate an article about his machine, she added her own notes—increasing the article's length threefold—detailing her realization that a computer could calculate results without having help from a human. She included an algorithm about how the machine could be programmed to calculate Bernoulli numbers, and her paper was published in an English journal that year under her initials.
We love a glass-ceiling-shattering woman who was, oh, 100 to 150 years ahead of her time.
2. Coffee filters, invented by Melitta Benz in 1908
German housewife Melitta Benz was frustrated by the grounds she always found in her coffee. One morning at home, she ripped a piece of blotting paper from her son's school notebook and placed it over a tin pot she'd punched holes into. Hallo: the first coffee filter.
After she received her German patent for her invention, she and her husband started a business making paper filters in their hometown of Dresden. The company still exists today, and employs over 4,000 people across the world. Cheers to that.
3. Bulletproof fiber aka Kevlar, invented by Stephanie Kwolek in 1966
Chemist Stephanie Kwolek was experimenting with polyimides for her employer DuPont, trying to come up with alternative materials for reinforcing car tires. She created an artificial fiber that was resistant to flame and corrosion and five times stronger than steel—which was later patented by DuPont and marketed as Kevlar.
Her invention has saved countless lives and transformed several industries, from sports equipment to automobile manufacturing.
4. Word processors, invented by Evelyn Berezin in 1971
I'm writing this article in an offspring of Evelyn Berezin's groundbreaking invention of the first word processor.
After studying calculus and physics, Berezin worked as an engineer, designing some of the first computers sold to the Defense Department. She realized she could use semiconductor chips to create a computer that would allow secretaries to write and edit text less manually. She called it to the Data Secretary, and for a decade or so, she led the company she'd founded to sell and market her invention.
In later years, bigger players like IBM (and then Microsoft) overtook her product, but if you've ever opened a blank word processor to write a magnum opus (or, you know, a grocery list) in, you have Berezin to thank.
5. Sport bras, invented by Lisa Lindahl, Polly Smith, and Hinda Miller in 1977
Lisa Lindahl took up running in her late 20s, but had a hard time making it around the track without her bosom bouncing along painfully. She and her sister were discussing the issue and wondered why there wasn't a jockstrap—that piece of fabric that protects a man's nether region during physical activity—for women. Lindahl partnered with her costume-designer friend Polly Smith to create a prototype with the help of her assistant Hinda Miller. Soon after, they realized they had a truly useful invention on their hands and started a company, found a fabricator, and started selling their product to sporting goods stores.
I'm very grateful to the makers of the Jockbra (later known as the Jogbra; later still known as a sports bra) for the technology that allows me to run around the block (on the rare occasions that I do that) without pain. My bosom thanks them.
What other women inventors do you look up to? And have you ever patented something? We'd love to hear your story! Drop a reply in the comments or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.