Throughout history, women all around the world have developed innovative solutions. In fact, many of the products we use every day, from windshield wipers to dishwashers, came from the imaginative minds of these female creators. To kick off Women’s History Month, here’s a list of five inspiring women whose inventions have shaped our lives today.
Hailed as the most famous female inventor of the 19th century, Margaret “Mattie” Knight is responsible for the creation of over 100 different machines. Margaret patented 20 of these machines, including a rotary engine, a shoe-cutting machine, and a window frame with a sash. However, the invention Margaret crafted that’s truly stood the test of time is something much simpler: a paper bag.
When she was just 30 years old, Margaret built a machine that folded and glued paper to create a paper bag with a flat bottom. The idea quickly took off and paper bags became a household necessity. They became so popular, in fact, that a man attempted to steal the idea to claim a patent for himself. Margaret quickly took him to court for patent interference, where he argued that a woman “could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities” needed to produce the paper bags. Margaret provided proof that she designed the machine herself and won the case.
With more than 15 inventions to her name, Maria Beasley’s contributions are nothing short of remarkable. While the barrel-making machine she invented was a true money-maker, earning her an estimated income of $20,000 per year, she also invented an anti-derailment device for trains and a popular foot warmer. Her most famous invention, however, is one that has saved countless lives.
In 1880, Maria launched her version of a dramatically improved life raft. Before her invention, the emergency rafts ships used were made from simple planks with hollow floats. They also didn’t use guard rails. Maria’s goal was to create a new life raft that was compact, fire-proof, and safe. She also wanted her life raft to be ready to launch when needed. Maria updated the style of the floats so she could create a foldable raft, which made it easier to store and quick to expand during an emergency. She also included guard rails on the side of her raft to greatly improve safety.
The story of Sarah Breedlove is a truly incredible tale. Sarah was the first child in her family to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation and she went on to become the very first female self-made millionaire in the country. While working as a laundress in her twenties, she noticed that many black women, including herself, were dealing with hair loss and scalp diseases because of the harsh ingredients found in their hair products.
Sarah spent the next few years of her life designing her own line of carefully curated hair care products specifically designed for women with African American hair. When it was time to market her new products, Sarah chose to do so under the name Madam C.J. Walker to give the brand a sense of Parisian luxury. Her marketing plan worked, and the products quickly became wildly popular. Soon after, Sarah established her own college so she could train “hair culturists,” which created thousands of employment opportunities for African American women.
If you look forward to waking up with a hot mug of coffee every morning, you’ll enjoy learning about Melitta Bentz. Frustrated with how difficult it was to make coffee with the systems that were available at the time, Melitta began to look for easier ways to brew it. Melitta studied several methods and found that the espresso-style machines often left grounds in the coffee, percolators made it easy to over brew it, and linen bag filters were a headache to get clean.
After testing a wide variety of materials, she had the brilliant idea to take a piece of blotting paper from her son’s school workbook and nestle it inside of a brass pot. It worked! Melitta pursued a patent and soon had an entire business dedicated to making coffee filters. By 1928, she was able to provide jobs to dozens of people, and demand for her coffee filters only continued to grow. Known for providing flexible work schedules, offering generous bonuses, and even creating the Melitta Aid social fund for her employees, it’s no wonder why her legacy continues to live on. The Melitta Group is still making coffee filters today.
The list of inventions Beulah Louise Henry produced during her lifetime is nothing short of amazing. With more than 110 inventions and 49 patents to her name, this prolific inventor submitted her very first patent, which was for a vacuum ice cream freezer, in 1912 while she was still in college. By 1924, Beulah had founded two companies in New York City to sell her numerous inventions.
Later on in her career, she began to focus her attention on improving pre-existing machines. For example, one of Beulah’s patents is for the protograph, which was an improved typewriter that produced four identical copies of each document without the use of carbon paper. By the 1950s and 1960s, Beulah was a well-known and highly respected inventor. She began to work with a wide variety of companies throughout the end of her career to offer advice as a consultant. When asked what inspired her to create so many inventions throughout her lifetime, Beulah simply responded, “I invent because I cannot help it.”
While this list only touched on a handful of the amazing female inventors who have shaped our world, I hope it’s inspired you to learn more about each of them and perhaps encouraged you to look for opportunities to improve the products in your life. Later this month, I’ll be highlighting some of the exciting work women are doing today, exploring the “FemTech revolution,” and sharing a few of the biggest trends we’re seeing for women in the workplace, so stay tuned!