Women Inventors

Do you know how many women inventors have 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.

Melitta Bentz’s invention

Bentz started her day like most people do – with a cup of coffee. But while most people were putting up with the coffee grounds in their cup, Bentz knew there had to be a better way. Back then you would also have to clean the copper pot and get rid of the grounds that stuck to the sides of the pot.

Coffee used to be brewed by pouring fine coffee powder into hot water and waiting for the powder to settle on the bottom of the pot. It never resulted in a great cup of coffee and by the time you waited for the grounds to settle the coffee was lukewarm. Also, the coffee had a bad aftertaste to it.

Women inventors solve problems

Like all inventors she tried many times and failed to solve the problem. But it’s through trial and error that inventors eventually come up with an innovative solution.

One day she ripped a piece of blotting paper from her son’s school notebook and put it into an old tin pot. She had put punched some holes in the pot. Then she added ground coffee and poured hot water over it. The coffee dripped through the paper and into the cup. It filtered out the bitter taste and she didn’t have to wait for the grounds to settle. She simply threw away the used coffee filter which makes cleaning up a breeze. Finally, she was able to enjoy a good, hot cup of coffee like we do today.

Women patent holders

She knew she had something of value and set out to patent it. The patent was called “Coffee filter with a domed underside, recessed bottom and inclined flow holes”. Her patent was granted in 1908.

Like many women inventors, myself included, she set out to manufacture and sell them on her own. She started out in her apartment with 100 cartons of filter paper and 50 filters. She took them around to shops to try to garner interest. When they were presented at the Leipzig Trade Fair she sold more than 1200 units. The attendees were owners of houseware stores across Germany. She was proving that her concept worked. Again, like many inventors, she grew her business and constantly improved her products.

The coffee filter soon became a family business. Her sons made deliveries with a handcart. Her husband set up displays in store windows to show people how to use them. This is what happens when you come up with a new invention that no one has seen before. You have to show people why they need it and how to use it. Bentz’s husband hired demonstration ladies to show the public how to use the filters. This was an idea he got from his time as a department store manager.

Road to success full of bumps in the road

The road to becoming a successful inventor is never easy. There are always bumps along the way. Just when things were moving along great and the company was making good money, World War I breaks out. Bentz’s husband and oldest son were called to the frontline. She then had to keep the company going and support the family with income from the coffee filters. On top of that, coffee imports slowed way down and paper was rationed and metals for used for the war effort. Bentz’s coffee pots were made of bronze. But Bentz continued, and her coffee filter company survived the war by pivoting and manufacturing cartons. In 1925 she stared using distinguishable red and green packaging to stand out from her competitors.

She was also generous with pay, Christmas bonuses, a reduced work week, and 15 days of paid vacation each year. And developed a Melitta Aid social fund for company employees.

Her oldest son became a co-owner in 1923. Today the Melitta Group has more than 4,000 employees around the world and produces around 50 million coffee filters a day.

Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

Anyone who has used a personal computer can thank Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. This dramatically changed the way programmers wrote software. They no longer had to write time-consuming instructions for each new software package.

Like many women who grow up to be inventors, Hopper had an insatiable curiosity as a child. She liked to take things apart and put them back together.

Joining the war effort

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hopper decided to join the war effort. She was initially rejected because of her age and small size, but she persisted and eventually received a waiver to join the U.S. Naval Reserve. She worked her way up to becoming a naval officer.

She was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. While she was there, she joined a team working on the IBM  MARK I, the first electromechanical computer in the United States. Hopper and her teammates worked on top-secret calculations essential to the war effort.  As a coder, Hopper also wrote the 561-page user manual for the MARK I.

Hopper was involved in the creation of UNIVAC, the first all-electronic digital computer. She invented the first computer compiler. The computer compiler was a program that translates written instructions into codes that computers read directly. This work led her to co-develop the COBOL. This was one of the earliest standardized computer languages. It could respond to words as well as numbers.

Hopper was able to look into the future and see what we now know is common everyday life. She predicted that computers would one day be small enough to fit on a desk. She predicted that people who were not professional programmers would use them every day. Boy, was she right!

Marie Van Brittan Brown

Marie Van Brittan Brown was a nurse whose invention helped make life safer for many people. She didn’t always keep regular hours at her job. 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 herself feel safer. (I lived in one of those Brooklyn/Queens neighborhoods and it was definitely NOT safe)

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. That way 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.

There was 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 homeowner felt threatened or another one that could be pushed that would let a friend in.

Patent For Home Security Device

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. That patent has since been referenced in future patent searches. And there have been quite a lot.

Since then the home security business has really taken off. 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. Homeowners everywhere can rest easier, thanks to this woman home security inventor.

Margaret Knight

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.

Women inventors are curious

I can identify with Knight, who grew up a tomboy, choosing tools over dolls. Knight would much rather spend her time making sleds and kites for other kids in the neighborhood. I’ve noticed this tends to be a trait in a lot of other women inventors. Like their male counterparts, women inventors are curious and like to tinker with things to see how they work. They want to find ways to make them work better.

One of the things she made better was the loom at the cotton mill. Knight got a job working there when she was nine or ten years old. One day she saw a co-worker injured by a steel-tipped shuttle that had fallen out of the loom. This inspired her first invention – a shuttle-restraining device. It was soon being used in the cotton mills around the country to help prevent injuries. Since she was just a kid, she didn’t even know about patents. That made it easy for her to be taken advantage of and she wasn’t paid for her product.

Inventor of the flat-bottom bag

Years later when she was working in a paper bag mill she thought it would make more sense to have flat-bottomed bags, instead of the envelope style bags they had at the time. She came up with a model for it, but needed a working model made of iron in order to apply for a patent. So she took her wooden model to a machine shop in Boston. There it was seen by one of the workers, Charles Annan.

When Knight finally did go to apply for a patent she was told that someone else had already applied for the same thing. Turns out it was Annan. Furious that he had stolen her machine out from under her, she got an attorney and took him to court.

Witness after witness testified that she had indeed come up with the machine, and that Annan had stolen the idea from her. She had also kept an inventor’s diary to corroborate her claims. I would highly recommend all inventors keep an inventor’s diary. There’s a special way to document everything and make sure you date it and have a witness sign it. It doesn’t cost anything, but is an extra layer of protection should you run into a situation like Margaret did. An inventor’s diary is a good legal document to have, even though that alone isn’t enough to protect you. But it is also good for you as an inventor so you can have a track record of what you’ve done that worked and what didn’t work.

Margaret Knight granted a patent

She was granted the patent and partnered with a businessman, who funded the business. She was paid money up front, royalties, and 214 shares of the company’s stock.

Knight cofounded her own paper bag company in Hartford, Connecticut called the Eastern Paper Bag Company. Between 1870 and 1915, the inventor was granted patents for at least twenty-six inventions. Those inventions range from a window frame, to a machine for creating shoes, to a compound rotary engine.

Margaret Knight invented over 90 inventions. In fact, she was still inventing at the age of 75.

The defense argued in court that the flat-bottomed paper bag machine couldn’t possibly have been designed by a woman. But it was. Women inventors still hear these things today. I’ve heard them myself. I’ve heard comments like “women only invent girly things”. I would say that women tend to invent things that they themselves need. But that doesn’t men that all of those inventions are for women only. Tabitha Babbitt invented the circular saw. She was watching men use the two-man whipsaw when she noticed that half of their motion was wasted. She created a round blade to increase efficiency.

I always encourage women inventors not to listen to the negativity. Women can and do invent. The world needs more women inventors.

Necessity is the mother of invention

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. Women inventors really have changed the world!