Patently Female: From AZT to TV Dinners, Stories of Women Inventors and Their Breakthrough Ideas / Edition 1

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Discover the trials & triumphs of great female inventors

Automatic Dishwasher
Barbie Doll
Buffered Aspirin
Cotton Gin
Disposable Phone
Drip Coffeemaker
Fabric Softener Sheets
Hang Glider
IV Fluids
Mars Rover
PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)
Protease Inhibitors
Smallpox Variolation
Space Suit
Spic & Span
Tract Housing
Vacuum Canning
Windshield Wipers
Zig-Zag Sewing Machine

and many, many more!

Reviews for Mothers of Invention by Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek

"It's a fascinating and gratifying book..It gives us a positive view of women's inventiveness, from the frivolous to the noble."
-The New York Times Book Review

"It is the wide spectrum of female humanity and ability in this book that makes it an especially valuable addition to the growing popular library on the accomplishments and work lives of women."
-Los Angeles Times

"An informative collection of talent, trivia, and history, Mothers of Invention will interest most anyone. More importantly, though, it will serve to inspire girls and women of all ages. For that reason, it belongs on the shelves of schools and public libraries everywhere."
-Tampa Tribune

"Wonderful..A book to be dipped into and sampled at one's leisure."
-The Chicago Biweekly

"This fascinating volume will find a place in the browsing sections of both adult and YA collections.recommended."
-Library Journal

One of the "Best Books for Young Adults,"
American Library Association, 1988

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In their sequel to Mothers of Invention, Vare and Ptacek explore female innovators a role history has often failed to record, let alone reward. The first U.S. patent was awarded to a woman, Hannah Slater, in 1793, for perfecting cotton sewing thread. But the authors quickly demonstrate that women's inventions aren't limited to the home. Both the brassiere and the jockstrap were invented by women. Can't do without that cordless phone? Thank Terri Pall. Interested in voting reforms? Susan Huhn invented the most reliable and mobile voting machine. The brilliance of physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking is transmitted through computer technology invented by Martine Kempf, Leslie Dolman and Carrie Heeter. And Hawking studies the universe in good company: Jocelyn Bell discovered the pulsar, and women invented the Mars rover and the space suit. Dr. Gertrude Elion's immunosuppressants make lifesaving transplants possible, including bone marrow transplants, which were Dr. Suzanne Ilstaad's revolutionary treatment for end-stage cancers and anemias. The major AIDS-fighting drugs, AZT and protease inhibitors, were also invented by women. Of course, not all women's inventions are so dramatic witness the TV dinner, Jell-O, tract housing and Barbie. Vare and Ptacek detail how women's ideas like the cotton gin, automatic sewing machine and even the Brooklyn Bridge have often been attributed to men and how history books and museums like the Smithsonian and the National Inventors Hall of Fame have ignored women's achievements. The book's lighthearted, colloquial style makes it ideal for classrooms, but the lack of specific years for many of the inventions is irksome. Photos. (Dec.) Copyright 2001 Cahners BusinessInformation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471023340
  • Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/26/2001
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 860,288
  • Product dimensions: 0.63 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

ETHLIE ANN VARE is a journalist and screenwriter who lectures frequently at colleges and universities around the United States.

GREG PTACEK is a writer, marketing consultant, and independent producer based in Los Angeles.
They received the American Library Association Award for their previous book about women inventors, Mothers of Invention: From the Bra to the Bomb, Forgotten Women and Their Unforgettable Ideas.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Ch. 1 Practicalities 5
Ch. 2 "Woman's Work" 37
Ch. 3 Computer Liberation 59
Ch. 4 Medicine 89
Ch. 5 Mother Earth 115
Ch. 6 It Took a Woman 133
Ch. 7 Women in Space 151
Ch. 8 Fun and Games 169
Ch. 9 The Littlest Inventors 177
Ch. 10 Pathfinders and Forerunners 189
Timeline: A More Complete Chronology of Invention 197
App. A Joining the Ranks ... 201
App. B: Resources 205
Index 209
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First Chapter

Of necessity, women have long been inventors. Theearliest recorded history treated women inventors as deities. The anonymous women gatherers who first cultivated their crops are mythologized by the ancient Greeks as goddess Pallas Athena, "founder of the plow and the plowman's toil." Similarly, China's Se Ling-she, a demigod and wife of Emperor Hwang-te, is credited with discovering silk around 3000 B.C. Queen Semiramis of Assyria is said to have designed the system of canals, causeways, and bridges that made possible the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

With the advent of the industrial revolution, women began turning their inventive energies toward machinery. Indeed, the first patent granted to a woman in the United States--English Patent #401, awarded to Sybilla Masters in 1715--was for a machine for "cleaning and curing Indian corn." By the early 1800s women were inventing all sorts of practical things. The young nation was still largely rural, so the products of women's imaginations often focused on agriculture. Among the most significant of these were the cotton gin, discussed later in the chapter, and the grain harvester or reaper, which is attributed to Ann Harned Manning in 1843. Later, Cyrus McCormick would become famous when he made further improvements to the machine.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, women's inventions reflected their new urbanized environments. In 1881 Mary Walton invented a special rail to reduce noise on elevated railways. The Metropolitan Elevated Railway Company of New York City paid her $10,000 plus royalties for her invention. Florence Parpart received Patent #649,609 in 1900 for her "new and useful improvement" in street-cleaning machines. Elizabeth Stiles won first prize in an invention contest sponsored by the Women's Pavilion at the U.S. Centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876 for her two-person, multipurpose desk and storage unit--perfect for big-city offices and small apartments.

Despite these practical achievements, the lasting image of women at the turn of this century is the fictional Gibson Girl, who, if she was inclined toward invention at all, would no doubt be bent on making improvements to the fainting couch. That myth isn't supported by the facts. On June 5, 1920, in the wake of women's suffrage, Congress ordered a Women's Bureau to be established in the Department of Labor. One of its first tasks was to do a survey of patents granted to women.

Headed by feminist Mary Anderson (not the same Mary Anderson who invented the windshield wiper!), the bureau undertook the formidable study of "how women [have] made material contributions to the sum of achievement." The statistical results were startling: between 1905 and 1920, women were granted hundreds of patents in the areas of manufacturing, structural design, and transportation. Women were found to have invented practicalities ranging from machine-shop tools and power machinery to automobile, railway, and ship parts and accessories; electrical, telephone, and telegraphic equipment; scientific instruments, including meters, scales, and watches; and optical and photographic devices.

Today "necessity" continues to inspire women to invent. Tana Brinnand of Scotts Valley, California, a computer artist who spends most of her day at a keyboard, developed MouseMitts wrist cushions. JoAnn Zucker of Tomkins Cove, New York, was dismayed at the prospect of having to send certified letters to all her neighbors regarding an addition to her home, so she created a "certified phone calling" system. And yes, Virginia, there's even room for one more improvement to the mousetrap: Patent #4,829,704 granted to Josephine Richardson.

Stephanie L. Kwolek

Thousands of police officers can testify to the value of Stephanie L. Kwolek's breakthrough invention, Kevlar, a synthetic material that's five times as strong as steel. The main ingredient in bulletproof vests, it saved their lives. This polymer fiber is also resistant to wear, corrosion, and flame, which makes it ideal for all protective clothing as well as for ropes and cables used in offshore drilling, in friction products such as brakes, and in aircraft and space-vehicle construction.

Kwolek is credited with the initial discovery of the liquid crystalline polymer solution that led to the high-strength, high-stiffness aramid fiber commercialized by DuPont in 1971. All told, her name appears on sixteen patents, and she is the sole patent holder on seven. She has authored or coauthored twenty-eight scientific publications and won every conceivable award in the field of chemistry, polymers, and plastics engineering.

Born July 31, 1923, in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, Kwolek earned her B. A. in chemistry and took a job with E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. "I really wanted to study medicine," says Kwolek, "but I didn't have enough money to enter medical school. I joined DuPont as a temporary measure, but the work turned out to be so interesting that I decided to stay on."

Starting as a chemist in the textile-fibers department, Kwolek was promoted through the DuPont ranks. "I think one reason I've stayed so long," she muses, "is that, back in 1946, women were only able to work in the laboratory for a few years; then they pushed us into so-called women's jobs. I had something to prove. Also, I was there at the very beginning when low-temperature polymerization was discovered, and was right there making the discoveries. It was very exciting."

She first gained national recognition in 1960 for her work creating long molecule chains at low temperatures. Her discovery of the technology for spinning fibers from these molecules led to her win of the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention, earned her U.S. Patent #3,671,542, and made feasible the commercial production of aramid fibers--a multibillion-dollar industry today. Her patents and many scientific honors are all in the name of "S. L. Kwolek," a reminder of the time when the wrong gender on a byline could be a kiss of death.

The latest honor for the now-retired DuPont scientist came in 1996, when she was named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The organization was founded in 1973 to honor individuals who have made major technological advances that contribute to the nation's welfare; past honorees include Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Louis Pasteur, and Alexander Graham Bell. She continues to serve on the committees of the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences.

"The path is easier today," Dr. Kwolek tells the young female scientists whom she teaches and encourages. "There are opportunities for women that did not exist when I started working. Then, if a woman spoke her mind, she quickly found herself out of a job."

Catharine Littlefield Greene

If Catharine Littlefield Greene had not been instrumental in the creation of the cotton gin, the quintessential American invention, chances are she would have contributed her formidable talents and energy toward some other equally monumental event in U. S. history. That's the kind of woman she was--a colorful figure who lived life on her terms, far beyond the domestic conventions of her early American peers.

Born in 1775 to a leading colonial family, Catharine, or "Caty" as she was known to friends, married Nathaniel Greene, thirteen years her senior and soon to become a trusted aide to General George Washington. Animated and flirtatious, she was an insatiable reader who preferred the company of men, causing tongues to wag throughout colonial society. But she had a serious side as well, following her husband to Valley Forge, where she spent the entire killing winter at his side.

After the war they settled down to antebellum life on Mulberry Grove, the Georgia estate deeded to General Greene by a grateful president. Within a year Nathaniel was dead, and Caty found herself in the unenviable position of having to raise five children and manage two plantations alone.

Soon after, the story is told, Caty was at a party at a neighboring plantation when she met Eli Whitney, a Connecticut-born school-teacher in need of a job. She hired him on the spot to tutor her children. She also learned that he was fascinated with mechanical devices, as was she, and challenged him that evening to help her design a machine for "ginning" (deseeding) cotton. As time-consuming as picking cotton was, ginning it was even more so. Whoever could figure out a way of removing human labor from this part of the production process would revolutionize the cotton industry.

Whitney accepted the challenge and in 1792 moved to Mulberry Grove, where he began working on the device between sessions with the children. History is unclear as to exactly how Caty participated in the invention of the cotton gin from this point. Some believe that she actually presented Whitney with a complete set of drawings for the concept. Some insist that her role was confined to suggesting that metal teeth replace the wooden ones built into the gin rollers of his inoperable prototype. Still others say that the invention of the cotton gin was a collaborative effort among Caty, Whitney, and a slave laborer whose name is unrecorded.

What is not disputed is that the gin was her idea and that her money financed the entire engineering process. When the gin was completed, it was Caty Greene who marketed the device to neighboring plantations. That was her first mistake. By the time Whitney had gotten around to patenting the cotton gin in 1794, bootleg copies were already in use throughout the South. Greene exhausted much of her fortune financing Whitney's efforts to protect their proprietary rights in lengthy court battles.

Her second mistake was not insisting that her name be listed on the patent. In spite of her free spirit, putting her name on a patent application was unthinkable to a pre-nineteenth-century woman of her class. Having no proof of her contributions, she stood by and watched Whitney take all the credit. He became famous in his day and, obviously, remembered for centuries. At least her name was listed as one of the cotton gin's licensers, along with the name of her then second husband, Phineas Miller. Unfortunately, the Whitney/ Miller cotton gin firm went bankrupt in 1798, having only sold six gins. As Whitney put it, the cotton gin became "an invention . . . so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor."

Miller died five years later, in 1803, leaving Caty again a widow at thirty-nine. In 1807 Whitney was refused an extension on his patent, and patent to the cotton gin became the only one he ever held. Caty died of fever in 1814, her contributions to one of the seminal inventions of the Industrial Age coming to light only late in the twentieth century.

Patricia Billings

"Sometimes instead of going ahead, you need to go back," says Patricia Billings, seventy-five, who invented a revolutionary new building material called Geobond by researching Renaissance-era manuscripts. The secret to her incredibly strong and heat-resistant, plasterlike substance had been contained in the writings of Michelangelo for centuries. But it took another artist to see the obvious.

Born in Clinton, Missouri, in 1926, Billings studied art at Amarillo College in Texas. In the late 1960s, she opened a shop in Kansas City and began selling her sculptures. Of all the materials she encountered during her art courses, plaster of paris fascinated her the most. Mixed with water, the substance, which is nothing more than heated gypsum, was perfect for making castings. It had one drawback: it wasn't very durable, which she learned the hard way.

After spending four months working on a swan sculpture, she accidentally smashed it. Not in a position where inventory in her shop could simply be swept away, she tried to repair it, first by using more plaster of paris, but the new stuff would not adhere to the old. She even got the bright idea of mixing a little cement into the gypsum, but, as she recalls, "the two materials destroyed each other."

Some years later, on a trip to Italy, she saw for the first time in person the glory of Michelangelo's frescoes, their colors still rich and vibrant after centuries. As an art student she knew that frescoes were simply paint applied to wet plaster. But why the painted frescoes had not faded substantially intrigued her. Studying obscure journals made by the Renaissance masters for their students, she discovered that the plaster used in the frescoes had been strengthened with a cementlike substance--but not cement itself--that changed their chemical components.

After eight years of trial and error in her basement lab, Billings believed she had formulated the correct mixture, which she dubbed Geobond. Ever the artist, she created a ten-inch statue made of Geobond and sent it to a science lab for tests. Eventually the tests would be repeated by no less than the U.S. Air Force, whose scientists discovered that Billings's secret mixture was extremely fire-resistant. To be exact, the material would not burn, even when it was heated to 6,500°F. Even better, it was found that the mixture could be "sculpted" into myriad forms and textures. That made Geobond very attractive to the USAF as a fire-resistant substance for aircraft.

In fact, the unique properties of Geobond make it the first safe alternative to asbestos, the once-standard fire-resistant material whose use was restricted after the 1970s, when it was discovered to cause cancer. Unlike asbestos, Geobond can be hardened and used in place of tile, marble, or bricks. Because it is pourable, it can be used to repair concrete on a bridge or highway . . . or even fix a broken swan statue.

The milky-looking substance is being manufactured through a small company Billings established in her hometown of Kansas City with start-up capital borrowed from friends. Recently the diminutive, bespectacled great-grandmother turned down a $20 million buyout offer from a company she was convinced would bury the technology. While Geobond International is just breaking even, Billings estimates that her five-year-old company will soon be generating upwards of $260 million in net profits.

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  • Posted March 13, 2012

    Highly Recommeded Book

    The author encourages not only women of all ages but also young children to be inventors. Additionally she mentions the imagination, invention, creation, discovery and development of several products by women, who came up with their bright ideas and experimental solutions which eventually became products that are still in use today. In the beginning, their works focused on agricultural products such as the cotton gin and the grain harvester. The second example includes women’s products like bras, the space suit and the ingredients of a cereal starch which combined knowledge of biochemistry and microbiology. Another example is the cure for many diseases such as childhood Leukemia, treatments for gout and herpes and the first drug for AIDs.I definitely recommend all women and young children read this book.

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