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5 women inventors you should know about from history

As part of Women’s History Month 2020, we round up five notable women inventors worth knowing about…

c1935: Beatrice Shilling sits astride her Norton motorcycle. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Published: March 20, 2022 at 2:04 pm
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It’s perhaps a sad truth that many people would be hard-pressed to name a famous woman inventor from history – or, if they can, they might only name one or two. Even Google seems rather biased in this matter; look for ‘famous inventors’ on the search engine and you will be delivered a carousel of more than 20 men before you reach the first woman (at the time of writing this was self-made millionaire Madam CJ Walker, in case you’re wondering).

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In actuality there are a plethora of remarkable women from history worth knowing about in the field of invention. Many home comforts we enjoy today are the result of female innovation – from chocolate chip cookies and disposable diapers to central heating and dishwashers. Incredible women-led discoveries abound in the fields of science, technology, engineer and medicine – from simple improvements to everyday appliances through to truly world-changing discoveries.

Here, we've rounded up five worth knowing about...


1

Ruth Graves Wakefield

Who? Ruth Graves Wakefield

What? Chocolate chip cookies

When? 1930

They’re a popular staple in many kitchen cupboards today, so it may be a surprise to learn that chocolate chip cookies didn’t exist before 1930. We can thank American chef Ruth Graves Wakefield for the existence of the delicious treat; according to urban legend, she invented the classic recipe after running out of baker’s chocolate while making cookies for guests at her tourist lodge, the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Plymouth County. Reluctant to run to the grocery store, she crumbled up some of Nestlé's semi-sweet chocolate and added it to her mixing bowl, expecting it to melt into the dough during the cooking process. To her surprise, the little chunks of chocolate stayed intact and thus the chocolate chip ‘Toll House’ cookie was born – or so the story goes anyway. Wakefield herself denies this is how her cookies were created and instead attests that it was all entirely deliberate.

The recipe featured in a newspaper article; however it was perhaps thanks to US soldiers that the cookies reached a wider worldwide audience. During the Second World War, soldiers stationed overseas would share the cookies they received in care packages and news quickly spread about their deliciousness. Wakefield and Nestlé soon agreed an arrangement for the chocolate company to market her cookies (allegedly, the American chef received just one dollar and a lifetime supply of Nestlé chocolate as part of this deal). Today, chocolate chip cookies command a remarkable place within the culinary market; they’re worth more than $18 billion/year in the US.

2

Lizzie Magie

Who? Lizzie Magie

What? Monopoly

When? Unknown – although she filed for the patent in 1903

It’s the source of many family arguments at Christmas, but whether you love it or hate it Monopoly continues to command a place as one of the most well-known board games of all time. Yet the game’s little-known inventor would be turning in her grave if she knew how people seek to win the game today (a process that involves acquiring the most property on the board and gradually increasing your wealth by charging rent to all those unfortunate to land on your spaces).

Born in Illinois in 1866, Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Magie was fiercely political and an outspoken activist; she once took out a newspaper advertisement selling herself as a "young woman American slave" to express her frustration about traditional gender roles. Her early version of the game that is now known as Monopoly was called the Landlord’s Game – and it was firmly intended to highlight the evils of capitalism. Popular with left-wing intellectuals and university academics, Magie wanted players to experience a "practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences".

She had two sets of rules for the game. The first dictated that every player benefitted whenever someone acquired new property, with everyone winning only when the player who had the least amount of money at the start of the game had doubled it. The second set of rules is more akin to the version of the game played today, with the winner being whoever bankrupts the rest.

The patent for the game was eventually sold to a games company called Parker Brothers. They relaunched it with just one set of rules (in which you are forced to crush your opponents to come out on top).

3

Josephine G Cochran

Who? Josephine G Cochran

What? Dishwasher

When? 1886

Technically speaking, Josephine G Cochrane wasn’t the first person to invent the dishwasher; this accolade goes to Joel Houghton, who patented a simple device made of wood in 1850. Operated by hand, this early dishwashing system was both inefficient and never really enjoyed much success. More than 30 years later, wealthy socialite Josephine Cochrane was frustrated that her expensive china was frequently damaged by servants during hand-washing. She began tinkering away in a shed in her garden designing concepts for dishwashing, and eventually brought her idea to fruition with the help of a mechanic named George Butters. The machine was displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where it won the prize for "best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work" and drew the attention of a number of restaurants and hotels.

Cochrane was posthumously recognised for her contribution to the consumer home market in 2006, when she was awarded a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

4

Beatrice Shilling

Who? Beatrice Shilling

What? RAE Restrictor’

When? 1940s

Beatrice Shilling was born in March 1909 in the small Hampshire village of Waterlooville. She bought her first motorbike at the age of 14 and later trained as an engineer – something that was incredibly difficult for women to do at the time – before securing a job as a technical officer at the Royal Air Establishment at Farnborough in the 1930s.

When the Battle of Britain started in July 1940, it soon became clear that there was a serious problem: the Luftwaffe’s planes had fuel-injected engines, whereas the RAF’s didn’t. This meant that whenever a British pilot went into a dive to shake off an enemy plane, the engine would splutter and sometimes cut out entirely.

Shilling and her team worked 19-hour shifts trying to recreate the conditions in which these cut-outs might occur. After a year, she discovered a way to regulate the flow of fuel into the engine’s float chambers using a metal disc with a hole in it – which later became known rather crudely as ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice’. Shilling fitted these to aircraft herself, riding between airfields on her Norton motorbike. The solution fixed the flaw that was causing pilots to die.

She was awarded an OBE in 1947 for her pioneering work, which may well have changed the outcome of the Battle of Britain.

5

Hedy Lamarr

Who? Hedy Lamarr

What? Torpedoes radio guidance device

When? 1940s

Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna into a wealthy Jewish family, Hedy Lamarr is best known for starring in hit Hollywood films such as Lady of the Tropics (1939), Boom Town (1940) as well as the controversial film Ecstasy (1933). She was also a keen inventor, creating products ranging from an improved traffic light to a carbonated drink that reportedly tasted similar to Alka-Seltzer.

Aside from her acting work, Lamarr is perhaps best remembered for helping develop a radio guidance system for torpedoes to counter the threat of jamming, patented during the Second World War. The principles of this work are incorporated into Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology that we use today.

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Rachel Dinning is digital section editor at HistoryExtra

Authors

Rachel Dinning
Rachel DinningDigital Section Editor

Rachel Dinning is Digital Section Editor at HistoryExtra.

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