Tag Archives: women inventors

Inventor of Coston Flares

Inventor of Coston Flares

If inventors know one thing it’s how to make lemons out of lemonade. History is full of stories about inventors who have succeeded despite failure and tragedy, and inventor Martha Coston dealt with both.


She married a man, Benjamin Coston, a scientist who was already an inventor who was just starting to make a name for himself. He worked for the Navy in a pyrotechnic lab. Like many inventors, his inventions were stolen and he was never compensated for them. The risk of working with dangerous chemicals finally got the best of him and he died at the age of 26, leaving behind a young wife and 4 children. Soon afterwards Martha lost her youngest son and her mother.


Pretty soon all of the money she had left was gone and things were starting to look very grim. It was then that she started looking through her husband’s work to see if there were any finished ideas that he hadn’t patented yet. She didn’t find any that were finished, but she found one that sounded promising. It was a system of maritime signaling flares.


The original flares that her husband came up with didn’t work, but Martha was convinced the basic idea was there and that she could improve on them. What she needed were flares that were bright enough and lasted long enough to be used for signaling over great distances. Her husband didn’t leave any notes about how to mix the chemical compounds that would create the brightness, and Martha didn’t have a background in chemical engineering. So she would basically have to start from scratch to figure out how to make them work.


For the years she was working on the invention she and her children stayed with friends. She first wanted to find out if the idea was even worth pursuing, so she contacted some people she knew in the Navy.


The first attempt at the flares was a failure since the brightness was too weak. But she kept on trying. She also only had two of the colors she needed and couldn’t figure out how to make the third one. But one night she was watching a fireworks display and had an idea. Maybe the pyrotechnics company could make the third color. She contacted them and started working with them.


She kept improving on the system, and eventually secured a manufacturer to make them. After many tests, she finally had the product at a point where the Navy was ready to give her a contract to supply them with a starting order of 3,000. She was granted a patent on the “Pyrotechnic Night Signals” in 1859. It was basically the same formula that is used in highway flares today.


The Navy tested them for the next two years under many different kinds of situations and were pleased with the results. The flares proved to be invaluable during the Civil War, and Martha sold over a million of them to the Navy. Eventually the Coast Guard would also use them in their search and rescue operations.


After a few improvement changes, and a new patent, she also sold them to maritime insurance companies and yacht clubs. As an inventor you will probably find new ways to market your products and new industries to sell them to as you get out in the trenches and start selling. This is what Martha did as she learned that there were many more applications than she had imagined.


The US government finally bought the rights to her patent for $20,000, and she then traveled to Europe to pitch the idea to governments there.


Martha Coston fought to be recognized and respected as a woman in a man’s world of inventing and manufacturing. She achieved success after much hard work and sacrifice, and went on to write her autobiography as encouragement to women inventors not to give up. Here is an excerpt from her book:


“In this attempt to recount my life and some of the varied experiences attendant upon my efforts to per perpetuate the name of my beloved husband and to support my children and myself, I am actuated by no idle vanity, nor yet the wish to pose as a writer, but by the honest desire to encourage those of my own sex who, stranded upon the world with little ones looking to them for bread, may feel, not despair but courage rise in their hearts; confident that with integrity, energy, and perseverance they need no extraordinary talents to gain success and a place among the world’s bread winners.”


Martha Coston never gave up her focus in seeing her invention, which was started by her husband, become a success, and her dedication to making a better life for her and her children. Martha Coston is a definite role model for women inventors and women business owners!




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The Surprising Reason for Lack of Women Inventors

The Surprising Reason for Lack of Women Inventors

At a recent innovation keynote speech I gave to Fortune 500 women executives, sponsored by Cognizant Technology Solutions, we examined some of the reasons fewer than 19 percent of all patents in the world are secured by women. This isn’t patents held by a single woman, but patents that have at least one woman listed on them. Fewer than 8% of all patents have a single woman as the primary patent holder.


This is still a dismal number, but better than it was 40 years ago when only 3 % of patent holders in the world were women.


In doing some research into why this number is so low, I discovered that, even though things have changed enormously in society for women, we still have a long way to go when it comes to intellectual property ownership.


When patent Law was passed in 1790, women were granted the same privileges as men. Even though single women could do whatever they wanted with their patents, married women didn’t have the same rights. Their husbands owned everything, including their patents. It would take another 50 years for the laws to change and 130 years for women to even get the right to vote!


So, now that women can vote, own property, and invent, why don’t they? Between scientific studies and my own personal polling, I discovered that the answer wasn’t what I thought it was. The obvious answer is that there is still a very small number of women in STEM careers. But that doesn’t answer the question about why there are so few women inventors.


According to an article written by Karen Frenkel for the Association for Computing Machinery in 2013, “women with such degrees are barely more likely to patent than women who lack them.”


I’m a patent and trade dress holder, but I certainly don’t have any kind of background in science or engineering. Even though my product isn’t technology based, you still don’t have to have a STEM degree to have a technology based patent.


A great example of this is Hedy Lamarr, inventor of spread spectrum technology for use in radio guided torpedoes. Her background was the same as mine…actor. She had no formal degree in science or engineering. She simply saw a problem that needed solving, (safely controlling torpedoes with a radio signal), and was able to apply the system of electro-mechanical technology of player piano rolls to come up with a solution.


The World Intellectual Property Organization, global experts in IP policy, completed their study of gender in inventing and found higher numbers of women inventors in biotech and pharmaceuticals. The women patent holders in biotech was an impressive 58% and in pharmaceuticals it was an equally impressive number at 55%.


But the least women patent holders were found in mechanical elements at 11%, transport at 13%, Machine tools at 14% and engines at 15%.


According to WIPO Director General Francis Gurry, “The new global data give us a baseline for understanding the role of gender in the filing of international patent applications, which is one metric used in measuring a country’s innovative capacity. These data prove that a gender gap exists and it needs to be addressed”.


This brings me to why I feel there aren’t more women inventors. It’s the same reason there aren’t more women in STEM careers. As far as we’ve come in society for women, there is still a lot of bias that remains. When I ask people in the audience to name an inventor, I rarely get anyone who names a woman inventor. Women have invented all kinds of things that have shaped our world, but they don’t get the same recognition male inventors do.


Also, girls aren’t encouraged to invent. One way to change that is to make inventing cool. Get girls involved at an early age. After leading several Girl Scout creativity workshops, I can tell you that I was very impressed at how creative and innovative the girls were. We need more of that. More programs for girls to get them involved and excited about inventing. Women have a lot to contribute to the world and we need more women inventors.


Inventions are created because someone had a problem that no one else had solved. So women, the next time you come across a problem that no one else has solved… invent it yourself.  Because your invention just might change the world.

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Women Inventors – Marie Van Brittan Brown

Women Inventors – Marie Van Brittan Brown

In keeping with Women’s History Month, I wanted to highlight women inventors who exemplify the phrase “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”. Marie Van Brittan Brown is one of those inventors.


Marie was a nurse who didn’t keep regular hours. While her husband, Albert, was at work, she was often home alone for hours at a time. Her neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens, New York was becoming more dangerous, and she wanted to find a way to make her feel safer.


One thing that bothered her was having to open the door to find out who was there.  So, she worked with her husband to devise a series of four peepholes in the door to show different heights of visitors, so she wouldn’t have to open the door. The peephole at the top showed a tall person and the one at the bottom would show if it was a child at the door.


They kept a TV monitor in their bedroom, which had a two way microphone so they could communicate with visitors. The wireless system fed images to the TV monitor. There was even a button that could be pushed in case the home owner felt threatened, or another one that could be pushed that would let a friend in.


Today, buildings everywhere are equipped with this technology, but at the time nothing like it existed. She and Albert applied for and received a patent on their home security device in 1969. It has since been referenced in future patent searches. And there have been many.


Since then the home security business has skyrocketed. With rising crime rates, closed circuit security cameras are becoming much more popular. But it all started with the “necessity” of one woman’s feeling of safety and security to get the ball rolling. Home owners everywhere can rest easier, thanks to this woman inventor.

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Inventor’s Spotlight – Woman Inventor – Margaret Knight

Inventor’s Spotlight – Woman Inventor – Margaret Knight

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.

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Mothers of Invention Grants

Mothers of Invention Grants

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, even though fewer than 15% of all patent holders in the world to this day are women. But Toyota is doing its part to help draw attention to women innovators and women inventors at the fourth annual Women in the World Summit.


Three grants of $50,000 each were awarded to women who are doing their part to help find solutions to global problems. Kativa Shukla, founder of Fenugreen, Caitria and Morgan O’ Neil, co-founders of Recovers.org, and Sejal Hathi and Tara Roberts, co-founders of girl tank were all recipients of the grants.


The women were also given a $15,000 “pay it forward” grant to give to another up and coming Mother of Invention woman innovator for the project of their choice.


Kativa’s innovation is called Fresh Paper and addresses the issue of food spoilage. Fresh Paper allows food to stay fresh for up to four times longer than normal. She came up with the idea while still in high school. It’s being used by consumers and farmers and is being considered for other useful applications as well.


Caitria and Morgan came up with an idea to help match local communities with resources in case of a disaster. They came up with the idea after a tornado destroyed their home.


Sajal Hathi and Tara Roberts came up with the idea for girl tank, which is a crowd funding platform specifically for women and girls. It’s already reached 1500 women in over 104 countries.


Toyota is also the presenting sponsor of the Women in the World Summit which celebrates women innovators, women inventors and social entrepreneurs from around the world. Women in the World Summit features women artists, industry icons, grassroots activists, and women CEOs who are making a difference in the world. Women who are fighting poverty and violence in war-torn countries.





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Women Inventors – Tabitha Babbitt

Women Inventors – Tabitha Babbitt

I’ve heard too many times that women inventors tend to invent “girlie” things. Sometimes that might be true, but not always. Take the case of the shy and quiet inventor Tabitha Babbitt, who invented the circular saw, which is certainly far from being a girlie invention.


One day Tabitha was watching two men use a pit saw. They were expending a huge amount of effort going back and force. Tabitha noticed that half of the motion was being wasted, since the saw only cut one way. The rest of the motion was just wasted.


They say inventors tend to invent what they know or at least they tend to use what they know in their inventions. Tabitha made her living as a weaver, so she took her knowledge of the weaving machine she used to spin her fabrics and created a circular saw blade which she put onto a fast-spinning axel. This greatly increased productivity and cut down on labor.


She improved the spinning wheel process by coming up with a double spinning head. This allowed women to spin twice as much as they normally would spin.


Tabitha also helped to create the process of cut nails. Instead of making them one at a time, she came up with the idea of cutting multiple nails from a sheet of iron.


Tabitha was a prolific inventor, who believed in increasing productivity through mass production. Through her invention of the circular saw she helped increase production in the lumber and furniture industry.


But since Tabitha was a member of the religious organization, The Shakers, she never patented any of her brilliant inventions as this went against the religious beliefs of the Shakers.


She was also working on the idea for a false teeth manufacturing process, but died before the idea was fully finished.




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Inventors Spotlight – Women Inventors – Marjorie Joyner

Inventors Spotlight – Women Inventors – Marjorie Joyner

Since March is Women’s History Month, we’ll be highlighting women inventors and women innovators who deserve their place in history. In 1928 it was hard enough for a woman to get a job, but for African Americans the unemployment number was twice as high. But one black woman who was employed was Marjorie Joyner. She worked for a self-educated businesswoman named Madame C. J. Walker, the first African American woman millionaire.


Madame Walker created a series of hair products specifically for black women that would smooth out their hair. She had employees she called “hair culturists”, stylish and perfectly coiffed women who went door to door with the Walker products, and would style women’s hair in their homes. Twenty year old Marjorie learned her craft while working for the Walker Company selling Walker Way products.


During the Depression Marjorie stressed the importance of good grooming for women, and men, who wanted to find work. She quickly worked her way up to national supervisor for the Walker Beauty Schools and eventually owned her own salon.


While working for Walker, Marjorie came up with an invention called the permanent wave machine. She was making a pot roast one night and noticed that the rods that held the roast together heated up from the inside. The lightbulb went off and she realized this might be a solution to a problem of being able to curl an entire head of hair all at once, saving time for the stylist and the customer.


She made a simple prototype by hooking 16 pot roast rods to a hair dryer hood. She experimented until she figured out a way to style an entire head of hair so that it would stay that way for days. Marjorie patented the wave machine in 1928. But since she was working for the Walker Company at the time and they legally owned the patents, Marjorie never saw a dime from the invention. She also invented a scalp protector to make the process less painful after hearing customer complaints about the rods burning their scalp.


Marjorie’s philosophy about women in business and women inventors was very straight-forward. She said “they just have a whole lot of common sense. They can bridge the gap men don’t see. There is nothing a woman can’t do”.


Well put, Marjorie. Well put!


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Charlotte Odlum Smith – Champion of Women Inventors

Charlotte Odlum Smith – Champion of Women Inventors

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.



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Why Kids are so Creative

Why Kids are so Creative

Today I spoke at the Girl Scout Conference on the topic of women inventors/women innovators. The session was sponsored by the people at THQ who make the U Draw Game Tablet for the Nintento wii.


Then the Girl Scouts had a unique kind of roundtable area where the Girl Scouts could sit and talk to a woman who had excelled in some kind of career. Mine was inventor.


At first I thought there weren’t any girls that were even interested in being an inventor. But I ended up having quite a few. The first group felt that inventing was just too hard and they could never do it. So when the second group came by I tried to coax ideas out of them and convince them that anybody could be an inventor by giving examples of kid inventors that had come up with successful products, like Abbey Fleck, who invented the Makin’ Bacon rack for the microwave. She came up with the idea after running out of towels to soak up the bacon grease. She became a million by the time she was a teenager. Now, that’s what they wanted to hear. Someone their age who had actually done it.


Once I got them to start talking they couldn’t stop coming up with bigger and better ideas. The sky’s the limit with kids. They don’t have much of a filter on their imagination. Once I asked them to start coming up with problems to solve, they just kept going. And they would also come up with many different ways it could be done. Adults will tend to analyze an idea and eventually figure out ways it wouldn’t work before it’s ever had a chance.


If adults could take the filters off and dream big like kids do, they could solve more problems.

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Women Inventors Who Changed the World

Women Inventors Who Changed the World

As you sip your morning coffee you probably don’t give any thought as to how the actual process of coffee brewing came to be. If it wasn’t for a frustrated housewife in Dresden, Germany, you might have to brew your coffee by wrapping loose coffee grounds in a cloth bag and boiling water around it. Suddenly you have a much better appreciation for Melitta Bentz’s invention.  


She knew there had to be a better way, so she cut out some paper from a notebook and stuck it in the bottom of a pot that she had poked full of holes. Then she poured the water over it. This filtered out the bitter taste. It worked and she started manufacturing her “coffeemakers” and selling them at local fairs. They were a hit.  


Most people think of Marie Curie as a scientist, but she was also an inventor, and the only person to win two Noble prizes. She invented a chemical process for extracting radioactive material from ore and she also discovered radium.  


Anyone who has used a personal computer can thank Admiral Grace Murray Hopper for inventing the first computer compiler. This dramatically changed the way programmers wrote software. They no longer had to write time-consuming instructions for each new software package. She developed COBOL, which is the first user-friendly computer software program.  


If you take your lunch to work in a brown paper bag you have Martha Knight to thank for it. She invented the machine that produced them. She was also the first woman to fight and win a patent suit after a man stole her design and put his name on it. He couldn’t imagine that a woman could create such a complex machine. She went on to invent several other machines and tools.  


Only 15% of patents belong to women, but the list seems to be growing as women are encouraged to invent. As they say “necessity is the mother of invention” and the world needs more women inventors.

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