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Professor of History and American author, Virginia Scharff, has published numerous books on women’s history, including: Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age; Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West; and The Women Jefferson Loved.
In her fascinating book Taking the Wheel, Scharff explores the cultural history of the automobile, how the first automobiles came up against the gender divide, and how women changed motoring as a whole.
Women inventors had to face enormous barriers to entry in all fields. Yet, these women were motivated and passionate enough to tackle the challenges head on. This article is a celebration and appreciation of their creativity, vision, and above all, will to succeed.
In alphabetical order, thirteen women inventors that influenced motoring:
1. Ada Lovelace – Mathematician, first computer programmer
Born Augusta Ada Byron (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852)
The daughter of the poet, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace studied mathematics as a child. This in an age when the purpose of educating women was to prepare them for marriage, and so a girl's education was confined to lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Lovelace studied under the mathematician Charles Babbage, who was also a philosopher, inventor, mechanical engineer, and credited to be “The Father of Computing”. When Lovelace was introduced to Babbage in 1833 she became interested in his inventions already at the age of 17. She created a programme for his prototype of a digital computer and is regarded as being the world’s first computer programmers.
In 1843 she translated, annotated, and published an article on the Analytical Engine written by Italian engineer, Luigi Menabrea. Ada's notes reflected her creativity and vision, and provided more insight than the original paper. There she put forth her own vision of how Babbage's machines could perform complex calculations. Later, she began to explore other ways that computers could be used besides solving mathematical equations alone.
The most famous of her mathematical works is where she describes an algorithm for the computation of Bernoulli numbers, and for it she is credited to be the first computer programmer.
As the first person to express the potential of computers beyond mathematics, she is known as “The Prophet of the Computer Age”. In her book, Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers, Betty A. Toole describes Lovelace as a fascinating woman way before her time. Today, she is an icon in the world of mathematics, science, engineering and technology. Her computer programming genius has equipped modern day vehicles with a host of features like airbag deployment, cruise control, infotainment, GPS, to name but a few.
Other notable achievements:
- “Ada” is a programming language developed in the early 1980s, and named in honour of Ada Lovelace.
- Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on the second Tuesday of October every year to honour of the contributions of women to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
- The Ada Lovelace Award is given to individuals who have excelled in either of two areas: outstanding scientific/technical achievement and/or extraordinary service to the computing community through accomplishments and contributions on behalf of women in computing.
Image source: www.lookfar.com/
2. Bertha Benz – German automotive pioneer and inventor of the brake pad
(3 May 1849 – 5 May 1944)
Born in an age when women were denied access to higher education,Bertha Benz was the first person to drive an internal combustion engine automobile.
In the early hours of a fine August day in 1888, without telling her husband, Bertha Benz bundled two of her children along and took to the road with the Benz Patent Motorwagen. The Benz was a car her husband Carl invented which no one was interested in buying. The long distance journey of approximately 105 km (65 miles) was her plan to prove to the world what the Benz was capable of.
During her road trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim, a road that was built for horses and carriages, she had to make several stops to make repairs. She solved practical issues like running out of fuel, clogged valves, and chafed-through wiring. She also noticed that the brakes were not functioning well, and when the car’s wooden brakes failed, she fashioned brake lining out of leather, inventing the world’s first brake pads.
Bertha Benz’ determination to put the Benz Patent Motor Car on the map took her family from poverty into recognition and affluence, and the 20th century automobile was to become one of the most important cultural advances of the new era.
3. Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt – British racing driver, author, journalist, and inventor of the rear-view mirror
Born Elizabeth Levi (5 January 1882 – 17 May 1922)
A pioneer of women in motoring, Dorothy Levitt taught Queen Alexandra of Denmark and the Royal Princesses how to drive an automobile.
As a journalist, she became known as an expert on motoring for women. In her book, The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women who Motor or Who Want to Motor, published in 1909, she offers a practical, how-to guide for those who wanted to take to the roads, but did not quite know how. It includes advice on buying and owning a car, along with handy practical tips. In it, she makes a suggestion that women should “carry a little hand-mirror in a convenient place when driving" so they may "hold the mirror aloft from time to time in order to see behind while driving in traffic". This idea caught on and the rear view mirror was introduced by manufacturers in 1914.
Source: The Women and the Carby Dorothy Levitt
4. Edith Marie Flanigen – Chemist and inventor of the molecular sieve
Born: 28 January 1929
In 1952, Edith Flanigen joined the chemical corporation Union Carbide. She began working on the emerging technology of molecular sieves in 1956. Molecular sieves with their extremely minute pores allow them to filter and purify very complex substances.
Flanigen is best known as the inventor of Zeolite Y – used in the petroleum refining and petrochemical industries. When refining petroleum, it must be separated into all of its different parts. Zeolites help separate out and purify chemical mixtures. Zeolite Y is a catalyst that enhances the amount of gasoline fractioned from petroleum, making refining petroleum safer, cleaner, and more efficient and productive. Gasoline for your car’s fuel tank is one of the many products that come from refining petroleum.
Other notable achievements:
- During her 42-year career at Union Carbide, Flanigen invented or co-invented over 200 novel synthetic materials, including a synthetic emerald which Union Carbide produced and sold for many years.
- Her work with molecular sieves also led to innovative applications in water purification and environmental clean-up.
- She received a B.A. from D'Youville College and an M.S. in inorganic-physical chemistry from Syracuse University in 1952.
- She is the holder of 108 U.S. patents.
- In 1992, she became the first woman to be awarded the Perkin Medal, America's top honour in applied chemistry.
- She was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame that same year.
- In 2012, she was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation
Image source: Shutterstock
5. Hedy Lamarr – Film star and inventor of signal hopping
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (9 November 1914 – 19 January 2000)
Hedy Lamarr is perhaps best known for her acting career, but the famous actress’ greatest work was the invention of a communication system that would pave the path to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.
On the eve of World War II, she partnered with fellow inventor named George Antheil to develop a new communication system that would be used to guide war torpedoes to their intended targets. The device was intended to block enemy ships from interrupting torpedo guidance signals by preventing radio waves from being intercepted and allowing torpedoes to travel more accurately underwater. This frequency-hopping technology was the seed that led to the invention of the modern car’s Bluetooth and Wi-Fi features such as hands-free calling, music streaming, and GPS.
Lamarr and Antheil were awarded a patent for their communication system, but the navy never adopted the technology during the war. The patented concept of frequency hopping is now the foundation of wireless networking systems and cell phone technology we now use today.
- She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
- In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation hailed Lamarr's invention as a "key component of wireless data systems."
- Early inventions included an improved stoplight design and a tablet that was dissolvable in water to create a drink that tasted similar to cola.
- In 2013, the IQOQI installed a quantum telescope on the roof of the University of Vienna, which they named after her in 2014.
- On August 27, 2019, an asteroid was named after her: 32730 Lamarr.
- In 2019, two children’s books were published that tell the story of Hedy Lamarr’s contributions to the scientific community:
- Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor
- Hedy & Her Amazing Invention
Image source: invent.org
6. Helen Blair Bartlett – Geologist and inventor of spark plug insulators
(14 December 1901 – 25 August 1969)
Helen Blair Bartlett was a geologist by training with an interest in spark plugs. She was the first to invent insulating materials for spark plugs using alumina ceramics. Her knowledge of petrology and mineralogy is said to be critical to the design of the spark plug insulation device.
The early spark plug insulators were made of porcelain moulded on a potter's wheel and were prone to breakage. They would get also get covered by engine by-product and needed regular maintenance cleaning. By encasing the spark plugs, Dr. Bartlett had made them more durable and to handle high temperatures and voltage, enabling vehicles to operate more efficiently and cleanly.
This great invention of ceramic insulators has increased the lifespan of spark plugs and decreased the need for regular maintenance. Today, 85 years after this invention, all new generation vehicles are equipped with Helen Blair Bartlett’s ceramic insulators.
7. Gladys Mae West – Mathematician and contributor to the invention of GPS
Born Gladys Mae Brown, 27 October 1930
Gladys West is known for her work contributing to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
One of her first major projects was working on the Naval Ordinance Research Calculator (NORC), an award-winning programme designed to determine the movements of Pluto in relation to Neptune.
In 1978, she became project manager of SEASAT, an experimental U.S. ocean surveillance satellite designed to provide data on oceanographic conditions and features . It was the first earth-orbiting satellite demonstrating that satellites could be used to observe useful oceanographic data.
From her work on SEASAT came GEOSAT, a satellite programmed to create computer models of Earth’s surface. West and her team created a programme that could precisely calculate the orbits of satellites. These calculations made it possible to determine a model for the exact shape of Earth. It is this model, and later updates, that allows the GPS system to make accurate calculations of any place on Earth.
Other notable achievements:
- During her career on the naval base, she earned another master’s degree in 1973.
- She continued her education after retiring at age 68 and received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy Affairs from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2000 at age 70.
- In 2018, at age 88:
- She was formally recognised for her contribution to the development of GPS by the Virginia General Assembly.
- She was inducted into the US Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, (one of the highest honours bestowed by Air Force Space Command) during a ceremony in her honour at the Pentagon.
- She won the award for "Female Alumna of the Year" at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Awards.
- She was selected one of BBC’s “100 Women of 2018”, a list designed to honour inspiring and influential women around the world
Dr Gladys Mae West is often called one of history’s “hidden figures”: individuals, often Black women, whose insightful contributions to science went unrecognised in their time because of their race or gender.
8. Katharine Blodgett – Pioneer in surface chemistry and engineering and inventor of non-reflective glass
10 January 1898 – 12 October 1979
An engineer and scientist, Katharine Blodgett began her career as a research assistant to Irving Langmuir, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, at General Electric (GE). In December 1938, GE announced that Katherine Blodgett had succeeded in developing a non-reflecting 'invisible' anti-glare glass. Further research on her work on non-reflecting glass led to the development of much harder coatings that could not be wiped off. Some of the applications of this invention can be seen in automobile windshields, store windows, showcases, camera lenses, spectacles, telescopes, picture frames, and even submarine periscopes.
Other notable achievements:
- During her lifetime, Blodgett was credited with several other inventions, including smoke screensthat protected soldiers during World War II.
- In 1921, she was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in Physics at Cambridge University.
- in 1926, she was the first female scientist hired by GE Laboratory.
- She received honorary doctorates of science from Elmira College in 1939, Brown University in 1942, Western College in1942, and Russell Sage College in 1944.
- In 1951, she was the first industrial scientist to be awarded the American Chemical Society's Garvan Medal.
- That same year, Schenectady honoured her with Katherine Blodgett Day for her scientific and civic contributions.
- She won the Photographic Society of America's Progress Medal in 1972.
9. Florence Lawrence – Actress and inventor of turning signals
(2 January 1886 – 28 December 1938)
Best known for her roles in nearly 250 films, Florence Lawrence was also an inventor. In 1913 she designed a device called the “auto signalling arm,” a mechanical turn signal used to inform other motorists of which direction the driver was headed. This revolutionary invention formed the basis for turning signals, so occupants no longer had to lift their arms left or right to indicate which direction they intended turning.
She also invented the first mechanical brake signal – a sign that would pop up on the back of the car by pressing the brake pedal with the word, ‘Stop.’
She did not patent either of these inventions, however, and received no credit or profit from either one.
10. Margaret A. Wilcox – Mechanical engineer and inventor of the car heater
Born in 1838, Margaret Wilcox was a trailblazer. In 1893, she received a patent for an internal car heater system that we still use today. Before electric car heaters were created, she engineered a system that pulled the heat from the engine and then redirected the air inside the car’s cabin. The revolutionary system became the basis of all future car heating systems and her design was used in the engineering process.
Heater installation first began by 1917. In 1929, Henry Ford used the technology to design and install heaters in passenger cars.
As one of the first female mechanical engineers, Margaret Wilcox spent most of her career building and engineering devices to improve people’s daily lives. She was responsible for other life-changing inventions such as the baking pan, combined clothes and dishwasher machine, and the home heater.
Although modern-day car heaters are slightly different, the concept remains the same. Not only was Wilcox one of the few female mechanical engineers during her lifetime, but she was also one of the only female inventors to receive a patent for her invention, awarded in 1893.
Image source: Kenosha School of Technology
11. Margaret Wu – Industrial chemist and inventor of synthetic lubricants
(Born 28 June 1950)
A scientist who spent her career with ExxonMobil, Margaret Wu is credited with revolutionising the field of synthetic lubricants. Her work has changed how automobile and industrial lubricants are designed and synthesised. Her discoveries improved energy efficiency and reduced waste oil.
Wu officially retired from ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. in 2009 as senior scientific adviser, the highest technical rank in the company, and the first woman so named. She holds over 100 U.S. patents and will be inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame later this year.
Today, synthetic lubricant products based on Wu’s work are used in myriad applications, from passenger car engines to industrial machines such as wind turbines.
Source: National Inventors Hall of Fame
12. Mary Anderson – Inventor of windshield wipers
February 19, 1866 – June 27, 1953
In the early 1900s, Mary Anderson was riding a streetcar in New York City on a snowy day. She noticed that her trolley car driver had to get out of the streetcar to clean snow off the windshield or drive with their head out the window.
To improve efficiency and safety for drivers, Anderson had the idea to design a tool that would wipe the windshield automatically without manual cleaning. She envisioned a rubber blade attached to a lever that was controlled by a spring-loaded arm, with a counterweight to hold the wiper flush against the windshield.
In 1903, Mary Anderson secured a patent for her design. It was found to be the first device of its kind to work effectively for clearing snow and rain from streetcar windows. She was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.
In 1917, Charlotte Bridgwood upgraded the wiper to operate electrically. Her design used rollers instead of blades. Both Anderson and Bridgwood did not gain much attention from automakers and the windshield wiper wasn't adapted for cars until 1922, when Cadillac began installing it as standard equipment with other manufacturers quickly following suit.
13. Stephanie Louise Kwolek – Scientist
(31 July 1923 – 18 June 2014)
While working at chemical company DuPont, through a series of polymer experiments, Stephanie Kwolek discovered that certain conditions triggered polyamides to form liquid crystalline solutions, which could then be spun into fibre to improve their strength. This discovery led to the invention of Kevlar.
Developed in 1965, this synthetic fibre of high tensile strength and heat resistance is used especially as a reinforcing agent in the manufacture of tyres and other rubber products. It was first used commercially in the early 1970s as a replacement for steel in racing tyres.
Today, Kevlar has many applications due to its high tensile strength-to-weight ratio. By this measure it is five times stronger than steel. Aside from its use in automotive manufacturing for brakes and tyres, it is also used in suspension bridges, bullet-proof vests, racing sails, drumheads, mooring lines, and bicycle tyres to name a few.
Image source: Chemical Heritage Foundation
There are many other women inventors, many who were a head of their time and who continue to inspire us through the ages. May they always be remembered and recognised, not only for their inventions, but for their determination to succeed in a male-dominated field.
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