In light of International Women’s Day, we would like to pay tribute to some incredible inventors throughout history, who just happen to be women.
Shockingly, although 46% of the UK workforce is female, only 15.5% of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) workforce are women, with only 8% female engineering professionals. One possible reason for this is the lack of awareness of female role models in STEM occupations.
Here we present our list of female inventors we think the world should know about.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) – The Mother of Wi-Fi
Described by many as “the most beautiful women in the world”, Hedy Lamarr rose to fame in 1933 in the controversial film ‘Ecstasy’ before hitting Hollywood and starring in the likes of ‘Boom Town’, ‘White Cargo’ and ‘The Female Animal’. Acting success wasn’t enough for Lamarr though, who would invent in her trailer between takes and is one of the few people (if not the only person) to have both a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Her most notable invention (invented with her friend, George Antheil) relates to a secret communication system involving frequency hopping to guide radio controlled missiles underwater in a way that could not be detected by the enemy. Such technology paved the way for modern Wi-Fi. The invention was granted a patent in 1942 and an updated version of the design was used on U.S. Navy ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Lamarr never won an Oscar for her acting but was the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, known as the “Oscars of Inventing”.
Margaret Knight (1838-1914) – The Lady Edison
Margaret Knight was an exceptional inventor in the late 19th Century. She was occasionally compared her to her better-known male contemporary Thomas Edison , with her nickname being “The Lady Edison”. Margaret Knight’s first invention was a safety device for a textile loom which was created following an accident to a work colleague. She was awarded her first patent in 1871, for a machine that cut, folded and glued flat-bottomed paper shopping bags, which eliminated the need for workers to assemble them slowly by hand. Margaret went on to file a further 26 patents in her lifetime.
Although these women have been recognised for their achievements, so many women have not. Probably one of the most famous cases was that of Rosalind Franklin.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) – DNA Discovery
There is probably no other female scientist with as much controversy surrounding her life and work as Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind Franklin was responsible for much of the research and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix model of DNA in 1962, four years after Franklin’s death at age 37 from ovarian cancer.
The debate about how much credit Rosalind Franklin is due continues. What is clear is that she did have a meaningful role in discovering the structure of DNA and that she was a scientist of the first rank.
These famous female inventors of history have inspired many women and girls to achieve great things. To continue our celebration of great female inventors, here are a few modern day inventors who have picked up the baton and we hope will inspire girls to get into science for years to come.
Ann Makosinski – A Light at the End of the Tunnel.
In 2013, Makosinski won the Google Science Fair with Hollow Flashlight, a thermoelectric flashlight. She was inspired by visits to her mother’s homeland in the Philippines, where her friends failed at high school because they didn’t have enough light to study at night. The device relies on the Thermoelectric effect using Peltier tiles and is hollow to increase convection currents. She is currently in negotiations to commercially manufacture and distribute the flashlight.
It was an idea simple enough for an everyday (albeit extremely bright) teenager in British Columbia to come up with, and yet it has the potential to improve the lives of so many people across the world.
Eesha Khare – The 1-minute Mobile Phone Charger
We’ve all been there, stranded away from home with no phone battery, desperately needing a fast way of charging our phones to get home. Eesha Khare was in that situation and, aged 18, decided to do something about it.
Khare is the developer of a supercapacitor energy storage device, a carbon fiber with different metal oxides. It charges mobile devices much faster than previous technology has allowed, and has the ability to charge for many more cycles. Khare’s goal is to “have a supercapacitor charge a mobile device in less than a minute.” Her innovation could be harnessed to charge more than cell phones and tablets; down the line, it could potentially energize cars.
Alison Bick – Making Your Water Safe, One Picture at a Time
Back in 2007, Alison used Intel technology to invent a smartphone app that tests water contamination quickly and simply. The app has earned her international honours, including the 2011 Stockholm Junior Water Prize, not to mention street cred within the science world. It’s also a rare chance for someone in her teens to impact communities halfway across the world.
Now in her junior year at Princeton University, Alison has since patented the water safety app. Amazingly, this program has the potential to address serious needs in developing nations. The World Bank has approached Alison in the hopes that it can use her technology to test water in Nigeria. Imagine the potential for third world countries.
STEM in Schools
As Nick Gibb, the UK’s School Standards Minister, observed “girls in England are less likely to take STEM subjects at A-level than boys”. This is shameful when the above women alone prove what amazing things can be achieved by studying science. Encouragingly Gibb has observed that “the gap is closing and the number of girls who took STEM A-levels has risen by 26% since 2010”. We need more Franklins, Knights and Khares in the world so let’s hope the rise continues. The important message that Gibb reminds us is that “It’s essential that gender is no barrier to ensuring all young people have the knowledge and skills to succeed.”