Published in the Fall 2008 issue • Geek Chic
Mothers of Invention
They may be less famous than their male counterparts, but these women inventors are still at the top of our list
They dream up, design and redefine how we live in the world. From the wheel to the iPod to the squeezable ketchup bottle, the inventor — full of wild ideas and steadfast vision — has an uncanny ability to make the rest of us blurt out, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that?”
While many women inventors have been forgotten (patents, granting an inventor sole rights to their work, were doled out only to men until the early 1800s) the ones we do know of definitely make us proud. Here are a few of our favourite female inventors who have come up with some seriously creative conceptions.
Ada ByronThe first child of famed English poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabella, Ada Byron walked a fine line between science and art throughout her life. Born in 1815, she never met her lyrical father: her mother left him when Ada was an infant and raised her to covet mathematics, not poetry. Raised in elite circles in London (Charles Dickens was among her casual acquaintances), she married William King, First Earl of Lovelace, and became Countess Lovelace. Byron was a pioneer of computer engineering, working with her longtime friend, the scientist Charles Babbage. Byron translated his memoirs and plans for a “calculating machine,” articulated his ideas, corrected his errors and appended the memoirs extensively with her own notes. The result: she conceived of what would later become the computer and would later be credited as the world’s first computer programmer. Tragically, in 1852 Byron was bled to death by doctors who were trying to cure her of cancer. She is buried beside the father she never knew.
Beulah HenryBorn in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1887 into a family of artists, Beulah Henry began to sketch out her inventions as a little girl. She received her first patent at the age of 25 for an ice cream freezer and, by 1973, she had another 49 patents to her name. Henry’s ideas and designs ranged widely and included a sponge that held soap and toys that taught children to tell time. Henry described inventing as a craft that chose her: “I think literature and art are far above things mechanical,” she once told a reporter. “I have painted many watercolours, but the world calls me an inventor.... I invent because I cannot help it.” Never married, she spent most of her life in New York City, where articles often referred to her “commanding presence.”
Hedy LamarrAbout the same time Henry was receiving her first patent, Hedwig Eva Maria was born in Vienna, Austria. It was acting, not inventing, that first struck her imagination. She gained notoriety for the 1933 Czechoslovakian film Ecstacy that featured long shots of her running naked through the woods and close-ups of her face in the throws of orgasm. In 1937, she left her husband, travelling to London, Paris and eventually Hollywood, where she changed her name to Hedy Lamarr. But Lamarr found acting in Hollywood unsatisfying. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she famously said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” Eager to help with the war effort, she teamed up with avant-garde composer George Antheil to work on a secret communication system. Using Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique as inspiration, they created a transmitter using 88 frequencies (just like the 88 keys on a piano). The signal hops from one frequency to the next, making it impossible for other parties to block or intercept messages. Lamarr’s technology was ahead of its time, and still has applications in cellphone technology today.
Bessie Blount GriffinWhile Lamarr was hell-bent on helping fight the war, Bessie Blount Griffin turned her attention towards its aftermath. Born around 1914, Griffin was a pioneer. An African-American woman who grew up in Hickory, Virginia, she studied physical education in New Jersey and Chicago. Passionate about working with veterans who had lost limbs during the war, she focused on helping them gain independence. Griffin invented an electrical appliance that would deliver food through a tube: biting down on a switch would signal for the machine to send the next biteful. Griffin was proud of her work, saying she had proved “a black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.”
Patricia BathFollowing in the footsteps of Griffin, Patricia Bath is another outstanding African-American inventor influenced by her community work. Growing up in Harlem during the Second World War, Bath was inspired by her parents’ community activism. After completing medical school at Howard University in Washington, DC, Bath returned to Harlem and worked at local hospitals. Her research found that African Americans were twice as likely to be blind than the general population. Bath became the first African American to earn a degree in ophthalmology (the study of eye diseases). She invented the basic technique and instruments for performing laser eye surgery, which she developed to be able to help people with cataracts. She also created the discipline of community ophthalmology, which ties ophthalmology to public health and human rights and offers primary care to communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access. Bath is still practising, helping communities around the world gain the right to sight.
And so there you have it. Geeky and glorified, these female inventors have left their stamp on the world. What are you waiting for? Go give it a try.