How did a 21-year-old widow with four children take care of her family and help win battles and save lives in the Civil War? By engineering a signal system so ships could light up their locations on both land and sea.
Martha J. Coston (1826-1904) needed a way to support herself and her children after the death of her husband, and she decided to develop a design he had left behind in a notebook. Though her husband couldn't get the signal device to work, Coston revised the designs to include pyrotechnic components to create a long-lasting and multicolored system of flares.
After years of development and testing, Coston secured a patent for her Night Signals system in 1859, and the U.S. Navy bought the patent for $20,000. She also bid on and won the right to manufacture the devices. Her three-light design is an example of timely and effective product engineering and is said to have helped the North win the war. The system also was used by shippers and yachtsmen around the world for improved night navigation, keeping Coston's company productive into the 1970s [source: Engineer Girl].