Inventions by Women: Female Inventions That Changed the World

| , | March 22, 2024

There are numerous inventions that we can thank women for. From treatments for malaria to space station power systems, women are responsible for a lot of world-changing inventions. This isn’t anything new, either: women have been making breakthrough discoveries for centuries in various fields, demonstrating their creativity, ingenuity, and resilience in the face of adversity.

Cataract Treatment by Patricia E. Bath

Dr.-Patricia-BathDr. Patricia Bath

Dr. Patricia Bath became the first Black woman to receive a patent in 1988 when she patented the Laserphaco Probe. This device is one of the best known inventions by women, used in cataract surgery to break and disperse any cataracts. Her invention was revolutionary! After treatment, Bath restored the eyesight of individuals who had been blind for 30 years.

The Laserphaco Probe is still in use today, changing the lives of individuals suffering from cataracts around the world. Besides creating one of the most important inventions in cataract treatments, Dr. Patricia Bath was a trailblazer in all senses of the word. She was the first female member of the UCLA Stein Eye Institute and the first woman elected to the honorary staff of the UCLA Medical Center, among other fantastic firsts. Not to mention, she holds a grand total of five patents, all of which relate to methods of cataract treatment.

Feeding Tube by Bessie Virginia Blount

In 1948, physical therapist Bessie Blount perfected her version of the feeding tube after working extensively with amputated World War II veterans. She noticed that many veterans struggled to feed themselves after having upper limb amputation. This negatively impacted their mental health and made adjustment to a post-war life difficult.

READ MORE: WW2 Timeline and Dates

For Blount, that was that: she would help wounded veterans by succeeding where the Veterans Affairs (VA) couldn’t. Without a grant, she spent her own money and worked tirelessly until 1948 when she finished developing her product: the electronic feeding device. The device would give recovering veterans a new sense of independence and self-esteem, some of the many things they lost in the war.

Blount’s feeding tube would hold a meal’s worth of food, and when the user bit down on the tube with their teeth, it would deposit a bite of food. It was completely hands-free. Her invention helped veterans everywhere – or, it would have if the VA had accepted her product.

Instead, Bessie Virginia Blount (now Griffin) was met with rejection after rejection. This was even after she appeared on television to showcase her impressive invention! It wasn’t until 1953 that the French government found her design. With the desire to help the masses, she donated the rights.

Treatments for Malaria by Asima Chatterjee

Asima Chatterjee
Asima Chatterjee

Malaria is one of the oldest and most deadly diseases in the world. Several ancient civilizations reference the symptoms of malaria and its devastating effects. In the Mediterranean, it became known as the “Roman Fever” for its prevalence within certain regions of the Roman Empire.

Asima Chatterjee was a brilliant chemist in a time when women in India infrequently received higher education. Her interest in medicinal plants began with her father, who was an avid botanist. During her studies, she turned to traditional Ayurvedic medicine for an anti-malaria drug from the plants Alstonia scholaris, Swrrtia chirata, Picrorphiza kurroa, and Ceasalpinna crista. With similar methods, she developed anticonvulsants.

Chatterjee extensively studied the use of alkaloids as an effective cancer treatment in chemotherapy, an undertaking that took over 40 years. She is remembered as the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Science from an Indian university, the University of Calcutta.

Artemisinin by Tu Youyou

Youyou-Tu-inventions-by-women
Youyou Tu

Youyou Tu and her team turned to Chinese traditional medicine for their research into malaria treatments, and there they found artemisinin in sweet wormwood. Through trial and error, they isolated the compound by distilling it. Two decades later, artemisinin became the recommended line of defense by the WHO.

Although the research was finished in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 2015 that Youyou Tu was awarded the Nobel Prize for her invention of artemisinin, the anti-malaria drug. She also won the Lasker Award in 2011. Recent studies have shown that artemisinin is an effective treatment against various malarial organisms.

Youyou Tu became forever ingrained in history as the woman whose malaria treatment saved millions of lives across Africa, Asia, and South America.

READ MORE: Ancient Chinese Inventions

Medical Syringe by Letitia Mumford Geer

Letitia-GeerLetitia Geer

In 1896, New York raised Letitia Mumford Geer invented the first one-handed syringe, made with glass parts. This was a step up from the previous syringes, which needed two hands instead of one. More importantly, Geer’s design was sanitary, thanks to it being single-handed and featuring a detachable needle. She patented the handy design in 1899 and founded the Geer Manufacturing Company in 1904.

To no one’s surprise, her one-handed syringe became incredibly popular, and modern-day syringes are based on her design and patent. You can thank Letitia Geer the next time you get a shot!

Computer Algorithm by Ada Lovelace

Ada-Lovelace

The first computer algorithm was written by Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – or, more simply, Ada Lovelace in the 1800s. She wrote papers on creating code for computers and famously worked on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Lovelace also created “looping,” a type of code that repeats a set of instructions. She was both a groundbreaking mathematician and a coder in an era before computers and a self-described “Analyst.”

Although Lovelace’s work wasn’t well-known, or even known at all, until the 1950s, she did receive recognition posthumously. Her “Notes” are considered among the earliest examples of code and the capabilities of computers (even AI!). You can help celebrate her accomplishments by taking part in Ada Lovelace Day, which annually falls on the second Tuesday of October.

READ MORE: The First Computer: Technology that Changed the World

Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth by Hedy Lamarr

Hedy-Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr: actress and inventor. Talk about a set of accomplishments!

A prolific actress in Austria, Lamarr fled to London and then the U.S. during World War II to escape an unbearable marriage to Austrofascist Friedrich Mandl. It was there, under the sparkle of Old Hollywood glamor, that she invented “frequency hopping” with the help of the pianist George Antheil. The idea was that the transmitter and receiver hopped frequencies together, so information could pass efficiently but securely. The nature of the hopping meant that it couldn’t be intercepted: something vital to war efforts in WWII.

Originally, Lamarr invented this technology to help aim and guide torpedoes. Frequency hopping has been used for quite a bit more since its initial development, including all types of wireless communication. Now, just picture your life without Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or GPS; that would be the world without Hedy Lamarr.

Hydyne Rocket Fuel by Mary Sherman Morgan

HydyneThe structural formula of UDMH and DETA, molecules that make Hydyne

The Space Race captivated the world. All eyes were on the sky, hopefully looking to the final frontier: space.

The math was done, and the rockets were built – the last step was actually getting the rockets off the ground. Turns out, this was a lot easier said than done. There wasn’t an existing propellant powerful enough to get a rocket off the ground. That is until Mary Sherman Morgan stepped onto the scene.

Morgan invented rocket fuel during the 1950s after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik had already been launched. The U.S. military gave her the task of creating a new rocket fuel without changing the rocket’s overall design, which is exactly what she did. She studied hundreds of compounds tirelessly until she found the right combination: 60% Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine and 40% Diethylene-triamine, which she named Hydyne. It was a more efficient, more powerful rocket fuel than the LOX/Kerosene used on Sputnik.

Space Station Power System by Olga González-Sanabria

Olga González-Sanabria Olga González-Sanabria

Puerto Rican scientist Olga González-Sanabria has worked for NASA for over 30 years, making some hefty contributions. However, her biggest claim to fame is her rechargeable nickel-hydrogen batteries.

READ MORE: Electrifying History: Uncovering Who Invented the Battery

These improved energy storage cells were more efficient and had much improved performance, especially when compared to lithium batteries. Although their energy density isn’t much to look at (⅓ of that of lithium), it has an insanely long life: 20,000 charge cycles. González-Sanabria’s nickel-hydrogen batteries power the International Space Station (ISS) to this day.

Word Processor by Evelyn Berezin

Imagine this: you’re typing a paper for school, a report for work, maybe even something for fun. But, then you make a mistake. Now you have to retype the entire sheet of paper! Such was simply life during the age of typewriters. It was an accepted inconvenience.

READ MORE: Who Invented the Typewriter? A Brief History of the Typewriter and Its Numerous Inventors

Then, sometime in the 60’s, the brilliant computer designer Evelyn Berezin emerged.

A rising star in the computer industry, Berezin created the first computerized word processor, dubbed the “Data Secretary.” No longer would poor secretaries have to retype page after page over a minor mistake. Now, with a mere couple of backspaces or deletes, they could correct any mistake – grammatical and punctual. As one can imagine, the Data Secretary was designed for secretaries originally, but Berezin’s invention has benefited many people beyond that occupation.

Fire Escape by Anna Connelly

Anna-ConnellyAnna Connelly

The modern outdoor fire escape can be credited to Pennsylvanian Anna Connelly, who patented the design in 1887 when she was only 19 years old. In her design, the metal bridges are enclosed by guard rails, and instead of one big staircase or ladder, it is broken up by platforms on every floor. The platforms were meant to prevent folks from falling several stories in an emergency evacuation.

With rapidly developing cities and industrialization of the time, fire safety laws and building regulations were severely lacking. The design of the outdoor fire escape by Anna Connelly saved thousands of lives in bustling cities. Connelly’s design also included alarms on either side of the fire bridges that connected buildings, so that residents of each nearby building could be alerted to the fire. As it turns out, there is no such thing as being too prepared.

Home Security Systems by Marie Van Brittan Brown

Go anywhere online (literally anywhere), and you’ll see footage from someone’s Ring doorbell camera. We can thank nurse and inventor Marie Van Brittan Brown for that. She and her partner, electronics technician Albert Brown, co-invented the first home security system in the form of the closed circuit camera, which they patented in 1969.

At the start, the intention was to increase the couple’s sense of personal security in their home. Little did the Browns know that their security system was ingenious and would change the face of home security forever.

The camera could slide up and down to look out of three different peepholes. Also, it was connected to a monitor for viewing purposes. The system came with a remote to open the door if the coast was clear and a two-way microphone to talk with people on the other side of the door. Most impressively, of all its gadgets, the security system Marie Van Brittan Brown designed was linked to an alarm button that would instantly contact local authorities if pressed!

Bullet-Proof Fiber by Stephanie Kwolek

Stephanie-KwolekStephanie Kwolek

Combine fashion and chemistry, and boom: you have kevlar. It’s that easy. Well, in idea, at least. Trust us, execution is much more complicated!

Stephanie Kwolek had a love for fashion and fabric before she moved on to chemistry. During her experiments, she discovered that polyamide molecules can form liquid crystalline polymer solutions when at the correct temperature. Kwolek used these polymer solutions to create industrial fibers that can withstand a gunshot. Beyond bullet-proofing something (or someone), kevlar is also used to make protective gloves, helmets, and in spacecraft.

In her lifetime, Kwolek filed over 20 patents. She also aided in the development of Spandex and Nomex during her career at DuPont Chemicals Company.

Life Raft by Maria E. Beasley

Maria-BeasleyMaria Beasley’s life raft patent

In 1882, Maria E. Beasley patented the life raft. It was good timing, too, as 30 years later those life rafts would come in handy in one of the most famous shipwrecks of all time: the sinking of the Titanic. It was Maria Beasley’s life raft design that helped save lives not only on the Titanic but during other maritime disasters as well.

The design focused on durability and storage: the structural design was made for quick access in the case of an emergency. They were also made out of polyurethane and nylon, which made them waterproof and durable. Obviously, these two things are very important for surviving on the water amongst debris from a shipwreck.

Beasley’s life raft was also the first of its kind to be designed with guard rails. Before, in the 1870s, life rafts were flat and lacked structural support to prevent people from going overboard. Due to the quantifiable nature of how her work has saved lives, Maria Beasley is considered one of the most influential women who made the future possible.

Maritime Signal Flares by Martha Coston

Martha-CostonMartha Coston

As many people do, Martha Coston felt compelled to help a war effort; in her case, this meant helping the Union win the Civil War. After using her dead husband’s plans and existing firework technology, Martha Coston figured out a design for her “Pyrotechnic Night Signals.”

They came in three different colors: red, white, and green. The colors helped to send coded messages, and the ease and convenience of her design meant easy communication between ships over long distances.

The design for these signal flares was patented in 1859, and the rights to the patent were promptly bought by the U.S. Navy. Coston’s second, updated design was patented in 1871. She kept the patent rights this time around.

Beer by Women of Ancient Mesopotamia

BeerAncient Mesopotamian art depicting a man and a woman drinking beer

Dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, beer was – and is – a part of society and culture. While we know the drink as a way to kick back, relax, and take a load off, the Mesopotamians didn’t take their beer too lightly. It was a serious thing.

In ancient Mesopotamia, women brewed beer. They brewed it in large quantities to satisfy the demand, which eventually began large-scale alcohol production. Sure, beer was a seasonal drink, but it was also vital to libations and religious ceremonies for certain deities.

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: 16 Oldest Known Cultures From Around The World

It got to the point where there was a goddess for beer: Ninkasi. Her priestesses brewed beer in her name, and they were also paid in beer for their services. Beer made the world go ‘round! Or, at least, it made ancient Mesopotamia go ‘round.

READ MORE: The Cradle of Civilization: Mesopotamia and the First Civilizations

Ancient Mesopotamia isn’t the only place where brewing was a woman’s job. There’s evidence of that being the case with the Anglo-Saxons, as well; the suffix -ster for last names is a female suffix, and attached to “brew,” for brewing beer. Brewster: a female brewer. Ancient Mesopotamia has some of the oldest evidence of women brewing, however, with surviving tablets to prove it.

READ MORE: The 10 Most Important Sumerian Gods

Paper Bags by Margaret Knight

Margaret-Knight

Before American inventor Margaret Knight, flat-bottomed bags were expensive to make. What’s worse is that they could only be made by hand. Knight knew all too well the grueling process as she was employed by the Columbia Paper Bag Company in 1867. From her experience, she decided to change the face of paper bags forever.

In 1870 Margaret Knight built a machine that would assemble the paper bag automatically. It was known as the “pneumatic paper-feeder.” The machine would cut, fold, and glue the bag together by itself – a process that previously took several people to effectively complete.

Knight had a monopoly on paper bags after her patent in 1879. She had her own company, the Eastern Paper Bag Company, to produce paper bags. The company was the subject of a famous court case in 1908, Continental Paper Bag Co. v. Eastern Paper Bag Co. which determined that patent holders were not obligated to use their patents. This came after the Continental Paper Bag Company attempted to use a patent of the Eastern Paper Bag Company when creating their products.

Coffee Filter by Melitta Bentz

Melitta BentzMelitta Bentz

Melitta Bentz is the woman we have to thank for the ease of most people’s morning ritual: coffee brewing. When the process of cleaning out the coffee pot of grounds became too time-consuming and arduous, and the present fabric filter alternatives were too expensive, Melitta Bentz came up with her own solution.

By nailing holes into the bottom of her brass coffee pot and lining the bottom of the pot with paper, Bentz was the first person to create a hassle-free and inexpensive coffee filter. Her company, Melitta, is still among the leading coffee filter brands of today and remains in her family.

Circular Saw by Tabitha Babbitt

In 1810, Tabitha Babbitt invented the circular saw after allegedly watching two men struggle with a whipsaw (a.k.a. the pitsaw), which only moves jarringly in one direction. She created the circular saw to save time and energy. And, well, to avoid the otherwise inevitable strain that comes with sawing.

The circular saw was more efficient than the whipsaw in several ways. More importantly, it moved the same way in a constant rotation and was powered by a water wheel. Babbitt’s design was made specifically for use at a sawmill rather than for practical, personal use.

READ MORE: Who Invented the Wheel? History of the Wheel

As a Shaker, Tabitha Babbitt never patented the design. Because of this, debate surrounds whether or not she truly was the first inventor of the circular saw.

Automatic Dishwashers by Josephine Cochran

Josephine Cochrane – Stamps of Romania
Josephine Cochrane – Stamps of Romania

Patented in 1886 by Josephine Cochran, the automatic dishwasher began infiltrating American society en masse. The original dishwasher consisted of a wheel that fit inside a copper boiler. Dirty dishes would sit inside the wheel, and as the wheel was turned by motor power, soap would squirt out onto the dishes.

The Cochrane Dishwasher was popular with businesses, but not individuals, until the 1950s. Not only were they expensive, but restaurants also had higher demand.

Josephine Cochrane’s dishwasher remained mostly an industrial dishwasher for almost 70 years after its invention. Only after the 1950s did the dishwasher become common in American households. Cochrane’s Company was bought out by KitchenAid before she died and is remembered as the company to develop the first commercially successful dishwasher.

READ MORE: US History Timeline: The Dates of America’s Journey

Foot Pedal Trash Can by Lilian Moller Gilbreth

Lilian-GilbrethLilian Gilbreth

Lilian Moller Gilbreth was all about efficiency. She invented many things throughout her life, notably the efficient kitchen design in domestic management, an electric mixer, and a trash can with a foot pedal attached.

Gilbreth had twelve kids (Cheaper By the Dozen was written by two of her children) and was a psychologist, industrial engineer, and consultant to boot. Naturally, she didn’t want to waste any time on things that could happen quickly. Why use your hands to open a trash can when stepping on a pedal would be so much easier? Not to mention, it was far more sanitary. The foot pedal trash can was only one part of her very efficient kitchen design.

Ice Cream Maker by Nancy Maria Donaldson Johnson

Nancy Maria Donaldson Johnson

Nancy Maria Donaldson Johnson invented the first wooden ice cream freezing machine. The invention was simple: a wooden bucket with ice. Inside was a separate tin sitting inside with the ice cream mixture. The mixture would be cranked by hand until it froze. Thus, the first-ever ice cream maker was born!

Donaldson Johnson patented this device, called the “artificial freezer,” in 1843. At this point in history, she was the first to patent a hand-cranked ice cream maker. Later on, she sold the patent to William G. Young who would later improve the design.

Monopoly by Lizzie J. Magie Phillips

In 1903, Lizzie J. Magie Phillips patented her Landlord’s Game as an expression of her anti-monopoly beliefs.

Phillips created two different sets of rules. The first was the anti-monopolist version, in which all players were rewarded when assets were created or collected, and the second version, the monopolist version, is the version people play today.

In 1935, Charles Darrow patented Monopoly, which was a very recognizable version of the Landlord Game. The controversy over this patent would spark decades later when people began learning that Magie Phillips was the true mastermind behind the game and not Charles Darrow.

Science Fiction by Mary Shelley and Lady Margaret Lucas Cavendish

Mary-ShelleyMary Shelley

When we think of science fiction, maybe we think about monsters or aliens or futuristic settings. Sometimes all of the above are in the same setting. Sci-fi can get pretty far out at times.

 In Mary Shelley’s case, she thought of an ambitious (and ultimately pitiful) doctor creating a “monster” from animated corpses after playing God. And there we have it: Frankenstein. This book, written as a friendly competition between bored friends to write the best ghost story, is widely regarded as the beginning of science fiction. It was published anonymously at first in 1818, but later her name was appropriately attached in 1823.

Besides the world-famous Mary Shelley, another woman is also credited with the birth of science fiction. And far before Shelley, too.

In 1666, Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World, in which she describes a kingdom accessible through the North Pole. This book is the first example of something that we might consider science fiction today. Her book, also known as The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, has been referenced by a variety of science fiction authors as a pivotal start to science fiction.

Windshield Wipers by Mary Anderson

Mary Anderson

These literal lifesavers were invented by Mary Anderson, a real estate developer, rancher, and viticulturist, in 1903. Patented as a “window cleaning device,” Anderson realized drivers had to manually wipe their windows clear in poor weather conditions.

Mary Anderson’s windshield wiper was designed as a rubber blade controlled by an interior lever. It was fitted with a spring-loaded arm and counterweight for efficiency. Even more impressive was the fact that the wiper could be removed for later use when the weather was agreeable. Despite the lack of individual car owners during this period, windshield wipers soon became an instant hit among manufacturers.

By 1922, car manufacturers saw windshield wipers as a necessity. Cadillac was the first vehicle manufacturer to consider windshield wipers as standard equipment, making all their cars from then on with wipers pre-installed. Unfortunately, Mary Anderson never profited from her invention, as her patent expired in 1920, two years before bladed wipers kicked off with major companies.

Telecommunications Devices by Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is the woman behind the scientific research that led to the development of the portable fax machine, the touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and caller ID. The Mother of Telecommunication Devices, Jackson was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998 for her contributions to the sciences. She is the former president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was the first woman and African American to be chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) under the Clinton Administration.

READ MORE: The Complete History of Phones from the Last 500 Years

Aquariums by Jeanne Villepreux-Power

Jeanne Villepreux-Power

Jeanne Villepreux-Power was the marine biologist responsible for the development of aquariums. Besides being a cool place to visit and a center of education, aquariums are places of research. Villepreux-Power was herself a talented cephalopod researcher. Her passion for marine life is reflected in the modern design of aquariums, credited to biologist Philip Gosse.

Originally, Villepreux-Power developed three separate types of aquaria. One was a submersible glass cage, another was an anchored cage for large mollusks specifically, and the final was the more familiar glass aquarium design. Although the first public aquarium didn’t open its doors until 1853, smaller aquariums were popular amongst upper and middle-class families.

Computer Programming by Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper

Computer programming is one of the fastest-growing industries in our day and age. For fine-tuning and development, we can all give a round of applause to Grace Hopper. She was a computer scientist, a mathematician, and a US Navy rear admiral in the Naval Reserves during World War II.

In 1949, Hopper worked on the UNIVAC I – the first ever general-purpose electronic digital computer. She worked tirelessly to convert machine code into English and to have the code be understood on both ends. She succeeded in 1952 and dubbed the program linker design a “compiler.” 

Besides being the woman to invent computer programming, Grace Hopper also wrote the first computer manual: “A Manual of Operation for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator.”

Fold-Out Bed by Sarah E. Goode

Initially a convenient way to save space, the fold-out bed has resurged in popularity among minimalist homemakers and fans of the Tiny House Movement.

The story of the fold-out bed began in 1885 when Sarah E. Goode patented the design for a “cabinet bed.” An entrepreneur and inventor, Goode was one of the first African American women inventors to get a patent in the United States. She sought a solution to the woes of the working-class customers in her and her husband’s furniture shop. You see, the Goode family lived in Chicago, Illinois, and though most people at the time could afford apartments, they were strapped for space. Thus, Goode got her inspiration for the cabinet bed.

Car Heater by Margaret A. Wilcox

An early patent for a car heater made and patented by Margaret A. Wilcox in 1893
An early patent for a car heater made and patented by Margaret A. Wilcox in 1893

We would never have the car heater without the contributions made by mechanical engineer Margaret A. Wilcox in the 19th century.

Patented in 1893, the first car heater Wilcox designed directed hot air from the combustion engine into the passenger compartment. This meant her design was prone to overheating, though that didn’t slow Wilcox down. Instead, she frequently revisited and perfected her original design: a habit she had until she died in 1912.

Stem Cell Isolation by Ann Tsukamoto

Ann Tsukamoto is an American researcher who is responsible for stem cell isolation and the expansion of stem cell research. She co-patented her studies in stem cell isolation in 1991, which has become a basis for cancer treatment around the world. It is believed that Tsukamoto’s continued contributions to the scientific and medical fields will help us develop a cure for cancer and other fatal diseases.

Born and raised in California, Ann Tsukamoto is one of many underrepresented women in the STEM field. Despite her legacy and invaluable research on stem cell isolation, she has yet to become a household name.

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