When Martha Coston was widowed in 1847, she was only 21 years old. She had four children to support, but she hadn't a clue about how to do so. She was flipping through her dead husband's notebooks when she found plans for a flare system that ships could use to communicate at night. Coston requested the system be tested, but it failed.
Coston was undeterred. She spent the next 10 years revising and perfecting her husband's design for a colored flare system. She consulted with scientists and military officers, but she couldn't figure out how to produce flares that were bright and long-lasting while remaining easy to use at the spur of the moment. One night she took her children to see a fireworks display, and that's when she hit upon the idea of applying some pyrotechnic technology to her flare system. The flare system finally worked, and the U.S. Navy bought the rights. The Coston colored flare system was used extensively during the Civil War.
Unfortunately, the flare system wasn't the best way for Coston to support her family. According to military documents, Coston produced 1,200,000 flares for the Navy during the Civil War, which she provided at cost. She was owed $120,000, of which she was only paid $15,000; in her autobiography, Coston attributed the Navy's refusal to pay to the fact that she was a woman [source: Pilato].