History Stories

Female inventors have played a large role in U.S. history, but haven’t always received credit for their work. Besides the fact that their contributions have sometimes been downplayed over overlooked, women—particularly women of color—have historically had fewer resources to apply for U.S. patents and market their inventions.

Not all of the female inventors on this list received attention for their work in their lifetime, or were able to market their inventions. But all of them contributed innovations that helped advance technology in their respective fields.

1. Life Raft

In the early 1880s, when a new wave of European immigrants were sailing to the United States, a Philadelphia inventor named Maria E. Beasley designed an improved life raft. Unlike the flat life rafts of the 1870s, Beasley’s raft had guard rails to help keep people inside during emergencies when they had to abandon ship.

Beasley patented her first life raft design in 1880 in both the United States and Great Britain, and received a second U.S. patent for an updated version of the raft in 1882. In addition to the life raft, she also invented a foot warmer, a stream generator and a barrel-hooping machine, receiving a total of 15 U.S. patents and at least two in Great Britain during her life.

2. Fold-Out Bed

In 1885, a Chicago inventor and furniture store owner named Sarah E. Goode received a patent for her “Cabinet-Bed.” The new piece of furniture was a desk that folded out into a bed, allowing the user to save space in a tiny apartment.

Goode’s invention predated the 20th century’s pull-down Murphy beds and pull-out sofas. With her Cabinet-Bed, Goode—who was born into slavery and won her freedom after the Civil War—became one of the first Black women to patent and invention with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

READ MORE: 8 Black Inventors Who Made Daily Life Easier

3. Dishwasher

Josephine G. Cochran was a wealthy socialite in Shelbyville, Illinois when she got the idea to invent a dishwasher. Cochrane employed servants to perform housework in her mansion, but started washing her fine china herself when she discovered some of the servants had accidentally chipped them. Cochrane found her brief exposure to housework unpleasant, and resolved to build a machine that could wash the dishes for her.

The result was the first commercially-successful dishwasher, which Cochrane patented in 1886. Previous attempts at dishwashers had used scrubbers, but Cochrane’s design was more effective because it used water pressure to clean the dishes. With her patent secure, she founded Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company. Because the machine was too expensive for most households, Cochran sold most of her dishwashers to hotels and restaurants.

4. Car Heater

The first person to patent an automobile heater was Margaret A. Wilcox, an engineer in Chicago. Wilcox’s 1893 design used heat from the car’s engine to keep drivers and passengers warm during trips. Later engineers improved upon the idea by making the heat easier to regulate.

Wilcox’s other inventions included a combined clothes-and-dishwasher, which didn’t catch on in the same way.

5. Feeding Tube

Bessie Virginia Blount, also known as Bessie Blount Griffin, was an American nurse, physical therapist, inventor, handwriting expert and possibly the first Black woman to train at Scotland Yard’s Document Division. In the 1940s, she who worked with World War II veterans in New York City’s Bronx Hospital (now part of BronxCare Health System), where she taught veterans with amputations to read and write with their teeth and feet. It was during this work that Bount invented a device that her patients could use to feed themselves.

Blount’s invention involved a tube that delivered food to a person’s mouth whenever he or she bit down on it. She patented part of the design in 1948, then gifted the rights to the invention over to the French government in 1951 on the advice of a religious leader (the U.S. government hadn’t shown much interest in the device). 

Her invention paved the way for modern feeding tubes, which can be inserted into a person’s nose or stomach if the user can’t ingest food orally. After patenting the feeding tube, Blount continued to invent and went on to become a forensic handwriting analyst.

READ MORE: 11 of History’s Fiercest Females Everyone Should Know

6. Kevlar

Stephanie L. Kwolek was a chemist who created synthetic fibers while working at DuPont’s Pioneering Research Laboratory in Wilmington, Delaware. The most famous one she created was Kevlar—a strong, lightweight and heat-resistant synthetic fiber.

Kwolek patented the process for making Kevlar in 1966. Kevlar is used in bulletproof vests and other protective equipment, and has also become a substitute for asbestos since the 1970s, when companies began to scale back on using the cancer-causing material.

7. Home Security System

Marie Van Brittan Brown was a Black nurse and inventor in New York City who, together with her husband, Albert Brown, patented the first home security system in 1969. Brown got the idea for the security system because she and her husband worked long hours as an electronics technician, and she often found herself coming home to their apartment and being by herself late at night.

The system that Brown invented involved a sliding camera that could capture images through four different peepholes in her door, TV monitors to display the camera images and two-way microphones that allowed her to talk with anyone outside her door. There was also a remote to unlock the door from a distance and a button to alert police or security. This system paved the way for modern security systems, and has been cited in at least 32 patent applications that came after it.

8. Cataract Treatment

Patricia E. Bath was the first Black American to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first Black female doctor to patent a medical device in the United States. The device she invented was the Laserphaco Probe, which removed cataracts—cloudy blemishes in the eye that can lead to vision loss.

Bath’s new ways of removing cataracts was faster, more accurate and less invasive than previous methods. She earned her first U.S. patent related to the procedure in 1988, and received four other U.S. patents related to her cataract-removal innovations during her lifetime, in addition to patents in Japan, Canada and Europe. She passed away at the age of 76 in .

9. Stem Cell Isolation

While working in Palo Alto in 1991, Asian American scientist Ann Tsukamoto was part of the team that patented the first method of isolating blood-forming stem cells in 1991. Tsukamoto holds a total of 12 U.S. patents for her stem cell research, which has helped with the development of cancer treatments.

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