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Women Invent!: Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World

Women Invent!: Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World

by Susan Casey

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These inspiring stories of women inventors take the reader through the process of inventing—from coming up with an idea to having it manufactured and sold.


These inspiring stories of women inventors take the reader through the process of inventing—from coming up with an idea to having it manufactured and sold.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Uma Krishnaswami
"While history books," says Casey in her introduction, "depict women as 'just being around,' and many books on inventors give little evidence of women's work, the patent records reveal a different story." Women, like men, have long invented what they needed, and here are eight information-packed chapters celebrating those inventions. From Harriet Irwin who received the first patent for architectural innovation, to Ann Moore who designed the Snugli baby carrier, to Madam Walker, the first African American woman millionaire, this is a gallery of distinguished women. They include astronauts and farmers, biologists and kids. An inventor's resource guide includes competitions, camps and programs for young inventors at state and national levels.

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Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.38(d)
Age Range:
9 - 13 Years

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Women Invent!

Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World

By Susan Casey

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1997 Susan Casey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-511-1


Necessity calls

"We still live in a world in which a significant fraction of people, including women, believe that a woman belongs — and wants to belong — exclusively in the home. ... The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half of its people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us."

— Dr. Rosalyn Yalow, Nobel Prize winner, 1977

The horse trotted at a steady pace, pulling the open carriage. It was a pleasant day in the mid-1880s in Baltimore, Maryland. The family riding in the countryside, especially the mother and father, talked of the birds that flitted about. Their daughter was too busy to chat. She was watching the birds as they flew from branch to branch. Then a loud blast, an explosion, frightened the horse. The little girl turned to look and saw the horse rear — saw its front hooves fly into the air and then down again. The carriage rocked unsteadily. Her mother and father held onto her and the carriage. Then the horse began to run, gallop, too fast, much too fast. The carriage was tipping to one side, then another. The little girl screamed. How were they going to get the carriage free of the runaway horse?

That was exactly the question Annie Chilton answered when she invented a device that would do just that. In 1891, the Baltimore woman gained a patent for a Horse Detacher and Brake, a device that would prevent accidents like the one about to happen in the story above.

Annie saw a problem that needed to be solved. Then she created a solution with her invention. She is only one of many women inventors, before and after her, who did the same.

So what are inventions, exactly? An invention is a discovery of something new that is useful to people. People might see it and say, "Wow, that's great. I could use that." Like what?

In 1976, in another part of the world, Magdalena (Maggie) Villaruz of the Philippines wanted to grow rice in the fields of her farm, but the fields were very wet. Tractors used to cultivate the wet fields got stuck in the mud. That is, until Maggie invented Turtle Power Tillers, a small tractor that can be pushed by hand. It doesn't get stuck in the mud; it floats. She obtained a patent in the United Kingdom and Japan in 1981. She has since gained nineteen other patents for inventions of farming machinery and was awarded the International Federation of Inventors' Association Cup as the Most Outstanding Woman Inventor of her country in 1995.

Annie needed a way to stop a runaway horse. Maggie needed to be able to farm in her fields. More than five million inventions have been patented in America, and millions of others have been patented in Canada, Europe, and other areas of the world in the last few hundred years. Inventions by women are included in those millions. Women, like men, have invented what they needed.

Women of the 1800s and early 1900s who lived on farms in America needed harvesting equipment, supplies and equipment for raising livestock and poultry, and tools for planting and tilling. So they invented and patented. Other women received patents for garden tools and equipment. Others invented insecticides to get rid of critters that killed the plants.

Anna Corey Baldwin, the wife of a dairy farmer in New Jersey, received four dairy-related patents in the 1860s and 1870s, including one for cooling milk quickly and one for gloves that promised to help speed up the milking of the cows. In 1887 Hannah Harger of Manchester, Iowa, worried about all the flies that were bothering her babies, invented and gained a patent for the screen door. In 1892, Sarah Boone, an African American woman of New Haven, Connecticut, designed an ironing board that made it easier to iron the sleeves of ladies' garments and mens' coats. In 1917 May Conner of Garden Grove, Iowa, invented a hay-handling device that used a well-planned system of ropes and pulleys to make it possible to easily transport hay to a storage area. "The object of my invention," she wrote in her patent, "is for use in stacking hay or moving hay away in a barn ... for carrying hay along a stock or barn." Her device was connected to a carriage and to forks used to move the hay.

Decades later, in the 1990s, a much younger woman who lived on a farm thought that the world needed biodegradable containers for fast food. So Disa Rubenbauer, who was in elementary school in Marshalltown, Iowa, created a container for hamburgers and other fast food out of corn products. Because it was winter, the fields on her family's farm were full of corn stalks. Disa and her father gathered some. After Disa ground them up in a blender, she combined the mushy corn stalks with corn syrup, corn oil, corn meal, corn starch, and water. She experimented with the amounts of each ingredient and with how much time the mixture had to be baked. When she finished she had created a container that would hold food and not harm the environment. She received an award from Invent Iowa!, an invention program of Iowa schools.

Years earlier, Amanda Jones was concerned with food, too. She thought there ought to be more ways to preserve it. When Amanda, who was born in 1835, was growing up in upstate New York, she loved the outdoors. And she loved to read. Her parents thought books were important and encouraged her, and her many brothers and sisters, to read. By age fifteen Amanda was a teacher at Buffalo High School. Then her favorite brother died a sudden death. It affected her deeply and led her to an interest in spiritualism, a popular movement of the day. She conducted seances in an attempt to communicate with him and claimed to have a spiritual guide. The guide was the one who prompted her career as an inventor. He suggested that there was a way to can fruit. He left it up to Amanda to figure out the method. In 1872 she came up with the vacuum process of preserving food with the aid of her cousin, Professor Leroy C. Cooley of Albany, New York. Food was placed in a container, the air was drained out, and hot liquid was added to seal it so that it could be stored for future use. Amanda started the Woman's Canning and Preserving Company in 1890 to manufacture and sell her canned food. She had plants in several states and advertised her products in national magazines.

Amanda's inventive talents went in another direction as well. In 1880, when she was forty-five, she wanted to find a way that crude oil could be burned safely so that oil could be used as a fuel. So she visited the oil fields where drillers were extracting the oil and devised and gained Patent Number 225,839 for an Automatic Safety Burner. The U.S. Navy praised it. Amanda also pursued a career as a poet, a writer, and a magazine editor. Several books of her poems were published including Poems and Ulah and Other Poems. The poems reveal her knowledge of wildflowers and bird songs. She was also the author of five other books, including A Psychic Autobiography.

* * *

WOMEN WHO LIVED in cities created inventions that served the needs of city life. They gained patents for fire escapes, heaters, and floor warmers. In 1868 Mary Evard gained a patent for a stove and a broiling apparatus. She wrote in her patent application: "The meal is supported ... upon spits suspended in a reflector before the fire...." In 1895, Claytonia J. Dorticus of Newton, New Jersey, an African American, gained patents relating to her work as a photographer. One was for an invention of a photographic print washer. Another was for a machine for embossing photographs. In the early 1900s women invented different types of bicycles and motorcycles. They invented horse-drawn vehicles, traffic signals, and equipment for boats and aircraft. In 1871 Augusta Rodgers was granted Patent Number 114,605 for a device relating to railroad locomotives. The device carried smoke and cinders to the roadbed below the train rather than into the air. Another woman gained a patent for improvements in locomotive wheels. When the first automobiles appeared on roads, women invented accessories, tires, and tire attachments.

Hannah Mountain was concerned with water accidents. What do people do if they fall off a boat? So in 1873 she created and gained a patent for a life preserver — one large enough for a person to lie on. It was approved as an auxiliary lifesaving appliance by the U.S. Supervising Inspectors of Steamboats. In 1963 Newsweek called Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu the "Queen of Physics," but she was also an inventor, according to Mothers and Daughters of Invention by Autumn Stanley. She gained patents in the field of radiation and encouraged many young women to become physicists. In the 1970s chemist Marguerite Shue-Wen Chang worked in the United States for the Department of the Navy and gained several patents related to atomic energy.

What about things for the house? Sure. Women invented heaters, trash receptacles, garment containers, insect and rodent catchers, and embroidery machines. They invented telephone and telegraphic equipment and devices for mailing packages. They invented umbrellas, trunks, and footwear.

Helen Blanchard was mechanically inclined and from a wealthy family, but when her father, a prominent shipbuilder in Maine, died and the business failed, she had to sell the family home and make a living. So she fidgeted with her sewing machine and began to think of ways to improve on it. She received her first patent in 1873 and later gained more than twenty others. She founded a company to market her inventions, made quite a profit, and bought back the family homestead.

More than a hundred years later, in the 1990s, another tinkering woman, Stella Quesnelle, from Penetanguishene, Ontario, Canada, was concerned with the effort it takes to rake all the leaves each fall. So she invented the Lawn Star Rake, a tool with wheels that makes raking faster and easier.

* * *

WOMEN'S IDEAS FOR inventions were for every aspect of life, yet many people of the late 1860s, the post-Civil War era, felt that the fields of architecture and construction were not suited to women. Many thought it was not proper for women to climb up on ladders or to visit construction sites as people did who worked in the those fields. Harriet Irwin of North Carolina disagreed. She was the daughter of Robert Hall Morrison, the president of Davidson College in North Carolina, who taught her that women could do many different jobs. That's why he sent Harriet to college. After finishing college, Harriet, at age twenty, married James Irwin. As they raised five children, Harriet continued reading and studying subjects of her choice. One of the topics she focused on was the design of houses.

In 1869, when she was forty-one years old, she became the first woman to receive a patent for an architectural innovation. Her patent was for "Improvement in the Construction of Buildings" for the design of a six-sided house. Her house did not have a central hall. A person had to walk through one room to get to another. She designed a heating system that provided heat for all the rooms at once. Harriet thought her design for a house made a more efficient use of space and light. So did her husband and brother-in-law. They formed a company to make and sell the six-sided houses. Harriet and her family lived in one of them. It stood in its original spot in Charlotte, North Carolina, for almost one hundred years.

* * *

WHEN AMERICANS SET out to celebrate the country's one hundredth birthday, they decided to have a fair. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was the first international fair of worldwide importance held in the United States. A Women's Pavilion was created to showcase six hundred exhibits of women's work, as described by Anne L. Macdonald in Feminine Ingenuity: Women and Invention in America. Eighty-five female patent holders displayed their inventions in the Women's Pavilion. Fifteen won Centennial Awards. One of them was Elizabeth Stiles, a businesswoman from Philadelphia. What did she display? It was a seven-foot-high reading and writing desk that was folded up when not in use. When it was in use, wooden flaps that were unfolded became writing tables. Racks for newspapers were revealed, as were drawers and shelves for books. She wrote in her 1865 patent that it was for use in "reading rooms, libraries, hotels, steamboats, etcetera." Elizabeth sold her cabinets all over the United States.

At the next United States-based international fair, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the organizers attempted to find the unusual by seeking out women inventors. And some of the inventions were truly unusual. One was a sofa bed that could also be a bathtub. Another was a dress stand that could become a fire escape. Another one was a machine most people would like to have had in their homes: a dishwasher. Josephine Cochran's dishwashing machine was not only on display, but it was in use at nearly all the large restaurants of the fair. The Shelbyville, Illinois, woman wrote in her patent of 1886 that she "invented a new and useful improvement in dish-washing Machines. ... A continuous stream of either soap-suds or clear hot water is supplied to a crate holding the racks ... holding the dishes while the crate is rotated...." She formed Cochran's Crescent Washing Machine Company to manufacture the dishwasher and sold it to Chicago hotels and restaurants. The price was too high, however, for most people to buy one for their homes.

The creation of another inventor was also in use at the fair. Anyone who visited the Women's Pavilion rode to the second floor in an elevator patented in 1890 by Harriet Tracy of New Brighton, New York. She won the contract to have her elevator installed at the fair. Her concern was safety. Her elevator was designed so as to avoid "injury ... in case of the ... too rapid descent of the car." A second patent was for a "safety device for elevators." It allowed those in an elevator to put on the brakes in case the car flew up or down. Harriet was a busy woman.

Thirty years later, Mary Anderson of Birmingham, Alabama, was concerned with the needs of another kind of transportation. Mary was on vacation in New York and decided to tour the city on a streetcar. There was only one problem: bad weather. The streetcar driver had a lot of problems seeing out the window of the car. He stopped the streetcar often to clear it off. Mary thought about this, and when she went home, she filed an application for a patent for the windshield wiper. She was granted the patent in 1903. Her design allowed the driver to operate a wiper by hand from inside the bus.

* * *

WHAT ABOUT INVENTIONS for children? Sure. In 1872 Jane Wells of Chicago gained a patent for a product that mothers have appreciated ever since: the baby jumper. Forms of the baby jumper are still popular today. Jane's was a stand-alone swing. Once a baby was old enough to sit up, a mother could put her baby in the jumper where it could swing about or bounce on its own. Jane wrote in her patent: "The infant's toes just touch the floor, giving it the ability to dance, swing, and turn itself in any direction."

Some years later, when industrial designer Merry Hull (her real name was Gladys Whitcomb Geissman) of New York became a mother she discovered a problem other mothers already knew about: kids grow out of their clothes too quickly. So, in the 1950s, Merry patented and sold Merry Mites expandable clothing for little ones. In 1986 Nickie and William Campbell patented the Easy to Hold Baby Bottle. It has a hole in the middle of the bottle that makes it easier for babies to hold.

Every mother deals with diapers. Did any of them have a better way? Yes. In 1950 Marion Donovan of Saugatuck, Connecticut, gained a patent for a "leakproof diaper." She wrote in her patent application: "Formerly diapers and covers were not leakproof and therefore accessories such as mattress covers, rubber sheets, rubber pants ... were needed...." Her diapers were sold through a company in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Another woman saw the need for another kind of diaper. While she enjoyed watching her new pet parakeet fly around the house, Bertha L. Dlugi of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wrote in her 1959 patent application that "a distinct disadvantage ... is that these birds cannot normally be house trained and their excremental discharge is frequently deposited on household furnishings when they are at liberty...." So she invented a diaper held on by a tiny collar. Bertha claimed that she didn't want the diaper to be annoying to the bird or conspicuous or harmful. She claimed most of it was hidden by feathers.


Excerpted from Women Invent! by Susan Casey. Copyright © 1997 Susan Casey. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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