I’ll never forget the day I got a call from someone who was shocked that a woman had invented the wrist water bottle. We should be so far beyond that in our society, but the fact that fewer than 15% of all patents are issued to women proves that we still have a long way to go. I can only imagine the scrutiny Margaret Knight must have gone through in 1871 when she invented the paper bag machine, which churned out flat-bottomed, foldable paper bags.
If you’re like most people, washing dishes is a chore. Okay, maybe it’s just me. But back in 1886 a woman inventor named Josephine Cochran thought the same thing. Technically Joel Houghton patented a dish washing machine, but it was a wooden machine that just splashed water on dishes. Josephine wanted a fully functional machine, so she invented it herself.
Josephine was known for throwing lavish dinner parties. But one day after a big party she noticed that one of the servants had chipped a very expensive piece of china. So she decided to start washing the dishes herself, even though she really hated having dishpan hands.
One day she simply got tired of the task and set out to make a dishwasher that worked. As she held a cup in her hand, she had an epiphany. Why not make a machine that holds the dishes in place while the pressure of hot soapy water totally washes over them? That very day she had put together the basic concept for her mechanical dishwasher.
Shortly after she came up with the concept, her husband died, leaving her with a mountain of debt and only about $1500. But Josephine was determined to see her idea through to fruition.
Josephine’s father was a hydraulic engineer, so she probably learned a lot from observing him. If she did get help from a man at home, she certainly didn’t get it when she was in the prototype phase. It was frustrating to have men tell her her way wouldn’t work and that they could come up with a better way. But eventually they saw her vision and ultimately the Garis-Cochran dishwashing machine was patented in 1886.
She thought she was making a machine that would take some of the drudgery out of dish washing for women, but women thought they didn’t really need to spend the money on them.
She sold her machines to restaurants and hotels through cold calling, which she continued to do almost until the day she died at 74.
Ruth Handler’s claim to fame as a woman inventor and woman innovator is that she invented the Barbie Doll. But Ruth’s resume was much bigger than that. She started off in 1945 as the co-founder of the toy company Mattel, which made toy furniture, music boxes, plastic mirrors, and picture frames.
At the time the dolls that were marketed to little girls were all cherubic baby dolls. But Ruth watched her own young daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls that she imagined were adults. Ruth had seen more adult type of dolls in Europe and wanted to invent her own so that little girls could create their own futures with them.
Many people thought the idea of an adult doll with adult features was too riskque’. The Barbie Doll, named after her daughter Barbara, debuted at the New York Toy Fair and sold over 300,000 in it’s first year. Mattel went public and was soon a Fortune 500 company with Ruth at the helm as president.
Barbie had a boyfriend, Ken, named after her son, and several friends of different ethnic backgrounds. Ruth was criticized for creating a doll with unrealistic features that no woman could live up to. But Ruth didn’t listen to the criticism. She felt that Barbie was more of a fantasy creation.
In 1970 Ruth discovered she had breast cancer and had to have her left breast removed. When she had a hard time finding a prosthetic breast that fit perfectly, she invented one. Until then they were interchangeable. But Ruth thought they should be more like shoes, a left one and a right one that fit perfectly. She started a company called Nearly Me that manufactured the prosthetics, and she traveled the country as an advocate for early breast cancer screening.
Ruth passed away in 2002, but Barbie’s legacy lives on and continues to be Mattel’s biggest seller.
Inventors and innovators are a unique breed. Creative Innovation would like to spotlight those people who have helped change the course of history or simply made life better and easier through their innovative products, designs or processes. We’ll start with the editor of The Woman Inventor, Charlotte Odlum Smith, a woman who tirelessly worked to champion the rights and accomplishments of women inventors.
Smith wasn’t an inventor herself, but she had a passion for women inventors. This passion was fueled by her friend, inventor Mary S. Mary who created 53 inventions, including some on mechanical devices, but lacked the money and knowledge to get them to market. She ended up selling them for as little as $5.00 a piece to men who had the finances and connections to get them launched. The men went on to patent the ideas in their own names and enjoy great financial rewards. Mary S. died penniless and was buried in a pauper’s grave. But before her death she begged Smith to make sure justice was done to women inventors.
The first thing Smith did was to ask the patent office for a list of women inventors from the time the office opened in 1790. She wanted to see for herself how many women inventors were out there. This request would prove to be more daunting than she imagined. It took 10 years to obtain the list.
She also urged the government to reduce the fees inventors had to pay and asked that they reward patent holders with money to improve their inventions.
For women inventors she asked the government to extend protection to women patent holders and that they prosecute those who infringe upon the patents. She also asked for a permanent display at the Patent Office honoring women’s inventions and an open invitation for women to attend an inventor’s association at the Patent Office centennial.
Charlotte Smith continued her fight for women inventors until the day she died. For someone who was always in the spotlight where everyone knew her name, she died alone and was buried in an unmarked grave. But we honor her sacrifice and dedication in the Inventor and Innovator Spotlight.