Top 10 Things That Women Invented

By: Molly Edmonds  | 
Many women have experienced that magical light bulb moment of inspiration.
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In the late 20th century, only about 10 percent of all patents were awarded to female inventors [source: Santhanam]. When you read lists of the most famous inventions of the past few centuries, few women show up as the creators of those items. It's not that women lack ingenuity or a creative spirit, though; it's just that women have faced many hurdles in receiving credit for their ideas.

Throughout history, inventions by women have been attributed to men. Take the case of Sybilla Righton Masters, a woman who lived in the American colonies. After observing Native American women, she came up with a new way to turn corn into cornmeal. She went to England to obtain a patent for her work, but laws at the time stipulated that women couldn't own property, including intellectual property. The woman's father or husband was considered to be the owner. In 1715, a patent was issued, but the name on the document was that of her husband.


Such property laws prevented many women from acquiring patents for inventions several centuries ago. Women were also less likely to receive a technical education that would help them turn an ingenious idea into an actual product. Many women faced prejudice and ridicule when they sought help from men in actualizing their ideas. And some women came up with ideas that would improve life in their households, only to see their inventions treated with scorn for being too domestic and thus unworthy of praise.

Mary Dixon Kies was the first American woman to earn a patent in her own name. In 1809, she developed a way of weaving straw into hats that was an economic boon for New England. By receiving that piece of paper with her name on it, Kies led the way for other female inventors to take credit for their ideas. Let's take a look at a range of things invented by women.

15: Home Security System

Marie Van Brittan Brown, a black woman from Queens, New York, recognized the need for a security system in her neighborhood during the 1960s. Not content with the long response times of the local police, she invented the first home security system with her husband, Albert Brown. The invention was groundbreaking and consisted of peepholes, a camera, monitors, and a two-way microphone. The system's camera was designed to slide up and down to allow the resident to view someone at their door through various peepholes. Once the viewer identified the visitor, they could communicate with the microphone or remotely unlock the door.

While Brown's system might sound commonplace today, it was revolutionary in the 1960s. The concept of being able to visually confirm a visitor's identity without physically approaching the door introduced an unprecedented level of security and convenience. Brown's innovation laid the groundwork for the home security systems available today. It's essential to acknowledge and celebrate inventions by women like Brown, who tackled real-world problems and paved the way for the advancement of home security solutions.


14: Ice Cream Maker

In the early 19th century, the foundation for today's ice cream maker was laid by an American named Nancy Johnson. In 1843, Johnson received a U.S. patent for her hand-cranked ice cream freezer. This machine utilized a hand-crank mechanism set within a container surrounded by ice and salt, allowing the ice cream mixture to be agitated consistently. This prevented the formation of large ice crystals, producing a smoother and creamier texture. Before Johnson's innovation, making ice cream was labor-intensive and often resulted in a coarse product. Her invention streamlined the process and greatly influenced ice cream's widespread popularity and refined texture.


13: The Landlord's Game

Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord's Game, a board game designed to illustrate and critique the monopolistic tendencies of the real estate market. Her invention was more than just a pastime; it was a critique of a system where landlords grew wealthy at the expense of tenants. Magie patented her game in 1904 and self-published it in 1906. The game featured properties for purchase and rent, and players circulated around the board, paying money and encountering various financial scenarios, much like the mechanics in later property-trading games.

In the 1930s, a very similar game called Monopoly began to gain popularity. Charles Darrow, often mistakenly credited as the sole inventor, commercialized this adaptation and sold it to Parker Brothers. In 1935, the company began mass-producing Monopoly, which quickly became a global phenomenon. While Darrow and Parker Brothers profited immensely, Magie's role in the creation of the world-famous board game remained largely unrecognized until recent years when historians shed light on her foundational contributions to the game's development.


12: Life Raft

Maria Beasley, an American inventor, revolutionized maritime safety with her invention of an improved life raft in 1882. Prior to her design, life rafts were rudimentary, often unreliable, and lacked essential features to ensure the safety of shipwrecked passengers. Beasley's life raft, however, was built with a sturdy frame, guard rails, and compact folding capabilities, addressing the limitations of earlier designs. This meant that more passengers could rely on these life rafts for safe evacuation, drastically reducing the potential loss of life at sea and helping save countless lives over the years.

Beasley's innovation wasn't just a minor tweak. She redesigned the life raft to prioritize both functionality and user safety. While the term life raft may evoke a simple floating device, Beasley's version was technically advanced for its time, boasting features that enhanced its durability and efficiency. She subsequently secured a patent for her design and saw its commercial potential, leading to widespread adoption across ships. The demand for her life rafts was not confined to the United States; they were sought internationally, emphasizing the global significance of her contribution to maritime safety.


11: Foot Pedal Trash Can

The foot pedal trash can, a staple in modern households and businesses for its practicality and design efficiency, was invented in the early 20th century by one of the era's prominent industrial engineers, Lillian Moller Gilbreth. This hands-free mechanism, activated by pressing a pedal at the can's base, allowed users to dispose of waste without touching the lid, playing a crucial role in improving hygiene and reducing the spread of germs.

While the foot pedal trash can is one of Gilbreth's most recognized inventions, her contributions spanned a wide array of improvements in ergonomics and domestic appliances. As one of the few women inventors of her time, Gilbreth displayed a keen ability to assess everyday tasks and redesign tools or processes for increased efficiency. Her innovative spirit bridged the gap between industrial and domestic realms, applying scientific management principles to home life, making daily chores more efficient.


10: Circular Saw

In the late 18th century, a religious sect known as the Shakers emerged. Shakers valued living communally (albeit celibately), equality between the sexes and hard work. Tabitha Babbitt lived in a Shaker community in Massachusetts and worked as a weaver, but in 1810, she came up with a way to lighten the load of her brethren. She observed men cutting wood with a pit saw, which is a two-handled saw that requires two men to pull it back and forth. Though the saw is pulled both ways, it only cuts wood when it's pulled forward; the return stroke is useless. To Babbitt, that was wasted energy, so she created a prototype of the circular saw that would go on to be used in sawmills. She attached a circular blade to her spinning wheel so that every movement of the saw produced results. Because of Shaker precepts, Babbitt didn't apply for a patent for the circular saw she created.


9: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Cookies and milk — a tradition made possible by Ruth Wakefield

There's no doubt that many treasured recipes came about through accidental invention in the kitchen, but we must single out one of the most enduring — and delicious — of these recipes: the chocolate chip cookie. Ruth Wakefield had worked as a dietitian and food lecturer before buying an old toll house outside of Boston with her husband. Traditionally, toll houses were places where travelers paid their road tolls, grabbed a quick bite and fed their horses. Wakefield and her husband converted the toll house into an inn with a restaurant.

One day in 1930, Wakefield was baking up a batch of Butter Drop Do cookies for her guests at the Toll House Inn. The recipe called for melted chocolate, but Wakefield had run out of baker's chocolate. She took a Nestle chocolate bar, crumbled it into pieces and threw it into her batter, expecting the chocolate pieces to melt during baking. Instead, the chocolate held its shape, and the chocolate chip cookie was born.


Nestle noticed that sales of its chocolate bars jumped in Mrs. Wakefield's corner of Massachusetts, so they met with her about the cookie, which was fast gaining a reputation among travelers. At Wakefield's suggestion, they began scoring their chocolate (cutting lines into the bar that allow for easier breaking) and then, in 1939, they began selling Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels. The Wakefield cookie recipe was printed on the back of the package; in exchange, Ruth Wakefield received free chocolate for life.

8: Liquid Paper

Bette Nesmith Graham was not a very good typist. Still, the high school dropout worked her way through the secretarial pool to become the executive secretary for the chairman of the board of the Texas Bank and Trust. It was the 1950s, and the electric typewriter had just been introduced. Secretaries often found themselves retyping entire pages because of one tiny mistake, as the new model's carbon ribbon made it difficult to correct errors.

One day, Graham watched workers painting a holiday display on a bank window. She noticed that when they made mistakes, they simply added another layer of paint to cover them up, and she thought she could apply that idea to her typing blunders. Using her blender, Graham mixed up a water-based tempera paint with a dye that matched her company's stationery. She took it to work and, using a fine watercolor brush, she was able to quickly correct her errors. Soon, the other secretaries were clamoring for the product, which Graham continued to produce in her kitchen.


Graham was fired from her job for accidentally putting her company's name, "Mistake Out," on a sheet with the bank's letterhead at the top. During her unemployment, she was able to focus on her own company, tweak her mixture, rename the product Liquid Paper and receive a patent in 1958. The product became indispensable in the days before the widespread use of computers. Nesmith sold Liquid Paper to Gillette for $47.5 million in 1979. Sidenote: Her son Mike was a member of the '60s music group The Monkees.

7: The Compiler and COBOL Computer Language

Admiral Hopper at her retirement ceremony in 1986
Associated Press/Peter Southwick

When we think about advancements in computers, we tend to think about men like mathematics professor Charles Babbage and software giant Bill Gates. But computer scientist Admiral Grace Hopper deserves credit for her role in the computer industry. Admiral Hopper joined the military in 1943 and was stationed at Harvard University, where she worked on IBM's Harvard Mark I computer, the first large-scale computer in the United States.

She was the third person to program this computer, and she wrote a manual of operations that lit the path for those who followed her. In the 1950s, Admiral Hopper invented the compiler, which translates English commands into computer code. This device meant programmers could create code more easily and with fewer errors. Hopper's second compiler, the Flow-Matic, was used to program UNIVAC I and II, which were the first computers available commercially.


Admiral Hopper also oversaw the development of the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), one of the first computer programming languages. Admiral Hopper received numerous awards for her work in the field of computer science, including the honor of having a U.S. warship named after her.

6: Colored Flare System

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].

5: The Square-Bottomed Paper Bag

Margaret Knight's invention led to the ubiquitous question, "Paper or plastic?"
Michael Matisse/Thinkstock

Margaret Knight didn't invent the paper bag, but those first paper bags weren't all that useful for carrying things. They were more like envelopes, so there was no way they would've become the grocery store staples they are today. For that, we have to thank Knight. Knight realized while working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company that paper bags should have a square bottom; when weight was distributed across the base, the bags could carry more things.

In 1870, she created a wooden machine that would cut, fold and glue the square bottoms to paper bags. While she was working on an iron prototype of the machine to use for her patent application, she discovered that her design had been stolen by a man named Charles Annan, who had seen her wooden machine a few months earlier. She filed a patent interference suit against Annan, who claimed there was no way that a woman could have developed such a complex machine. Knight used her own notes and sketches to prove otherwise, and she was granted the patent for the device in 1871.

That was hardly Knight's first patent, though. At the age of 12, Knight developed a stop-motion device that would automatically bring industrial machines to a halt if something was caught on them, which prevented many injuries; all told, Knight was awarded more than 20 patents.

4: Dishwasher

You might think that the first dishwasher was invented by someone who spent years washing dishes, bemoaning the wasted time and the dishpan hands. However, Josephine Cochrane, who received the patent for the first commercially successful dishwasher, didn't spend that much time washing dishes. The real impetus for her invention was frustration over her servants breaking her heirloom china after fancy dinners.

Cochrane was a socialite who loved to entertain, but after her husband died in 1883, she was left with massive debt. Rather than sell off that beloved china, she focused on building a machine that would wash it properly. Her machine relied upon strong water pressure aimed at a wire rack of dishes, and she received a patent for the device in 1886.

Cochrane claimed that inventing the machine was nowhere near as hard as promoting it. At first, the Cochrane dishwasher tanked with individual consumers, as many households lacked the hot water heaters necessary to run it, and those that had the capacity balked at paying for something that housewives did for free. Undaunted, Cochrane sought appointments with large hotels and restaurants, selling them on the fact that the dishwasher could do the job they were paying several dozen employees to do. In time, however, more households acquired the device as greater numbers of women entered the workplace.

3: Windshield Wiper

When Anderson first proposed the idea of windshield wipers, some people thought it would be too distracting to drivers.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Mary Anderson went to New York City for the first time. She saw a much different New York City than the one tourists see today. There were no cabs honking, nor were there thousands of cars vying for position in afternoon traffic. Cars had not yet captured the American imagination and were quite rare when Anderson took that trip, but the woman from Alabama would end up inventing something that has become standard on every automobile. During her trip, Anderson took a trolley through the snow-covered city.

She noticed that the driver had to stop the trolley every few minutes to wipe the snow off his front window. At the time, all drivers had to do so; rain and snow were thought to be things drivers had to deal with, even though they resulted in poor visibility. When she returned home, Anderson developed a new windshield cleaning device with a squeegee on a spindle that was attached to a handle on the inside of the vehicle. When the driver needed to clear the glass, he simply pulled on the handle and the squeegee wiped the precipitation from the windshield. Anderson received the patent for her device in 1903; just 10 years later, thousands of Americans owned a car with her invention.

2: Nystatin

Long-distance romantic relationships are often troubled, but Rachel Fuller Brown and Elizabeth Lee Hazen proved that long-distance professional relationships can yield productive results. Both Brown and Hazen worked for the New York State Department of Health in the 1940s, but Hazen was stationed in New York City and Brown was in Albany. Despite the miles, Brown and Hazen collaborated on the first successful fungus-fighting drug.

In New York City, Hazen would test soil samples to see if any of the organisms within would respond to fungi. If there was activity, Hazen would mail the jar of soil to Brown, who would work to extract the agent in the soil that was causing the reaction. Once Brown had found the active ingredient, it went back in the mail to Hazen, who'd check it against the fungi again. If the organism killed the fungi, it would be evaluated for toxicity. Most of the samples proved too toxic for human use, but finally Brown and Hazen happened upon an effective fungus-killing drug in 1950. They named it Nystatin, after New York state. The medication, now sold under a variety of trade names, cures fungal infections that affect the skin, vagina and intestinal system. It's also been used on trees with Dutch elm disease and on artwork affected by mold.

1: Kevlar

Bulletproof vests are now standard equipment for police officers.
Taxi/Getty Images

It was just supposed to be a temporary job. Stephanie Kwolek took a position at DuPont in 1946 so she could save enough money to go to medical school. In 1964, she was still there, researching how to turn polymers into extra-strong synthetic fibers. Kwolek was working with polymers that had rod-like molecules that all lined up in one direction.

Compared to the molecules that formed jumbled bundles, Kwolek thought the uniform lines would make the resulting material stronger, though these polymers were very difficult to dissolve into a solution that could be tested. She finally prepared such a solution with the rod-like molecules, but it looked unlike all the other molecular solutions she'd ever made. Her next step was to run it through the spinneret, a machine that would produce the fibers. However, the spinneret operator almost refused to let Kwolek use the machine because he was convinced it would ruin the spinneret.

Kwolek persisted, and after the spinneret had done its work, Kwolek had a fiber that was ounce-for-ounce as strong as steel. This material was dubbed Kevlar, and it's been used to manufacture skis, radial car tires and brake pads, suspension bridge cables, helmets, and hiking and camping gear. Most notably, Kevlar is used to make bulletproof vests, so even though Kwolek didn't make it to medical school, she still saved countless lives.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

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