Hedy Lamarr, Inventor of Digital Communications.
Credit: Jack's Movie Mania on Flickr

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day when we celebrate the achievements of women (at least that’s what Wikipedia says we do). When I visited the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last week I learned that women are getting more patents than ever before – with 22,984 patents granted to women in 2010, according to data released last week. The USPTO had a display on women patent-holders and I was reminded that women had invented quite a lot of cool stuff over the years.

I have often imagined that the inventions from last century would be almost exclusively in decidedly pink industries (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean where would we all be without the Snugli baby carrier? But that’s actually just part of the story. Here’s a sampling of women and their inventions that you probably have never heard of:

Mary Anderson: Windshield Wipers During a trip to
New York City from Alabama, Anderson noticed that streetcar drivers
were forced to open their windows in rainy conditions so they could
see. She invented a swinging arm device with a rubber blade that was
operated from within the vehicle and could wipe away snow and rain. In
1903 she was granted a patent for her invention – the windshield wiper. By 1916, they were standard equipment on all American cars. (Other car improvements by women during those years include a carburetor, a clutch mechanism, an electric engine starter, and a starting mechanism.)

Margaret Knight: Paper Bag — Knight worked in a paper bag factory when she invented a new machine part that would automatically fold and glue paper bags to create square bottoms for paper bags – the same type of grocery bag still in use today (paper bags had been more like envelopes before). Knight had entrepreneurial instincts and went on to create the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870. She received a total of 26 patents over her life time.

Stephanie Kwolek: Bullet Proof Vest— Stephanie Kwolek’s research with high performance chemical compounds for the DuPont Company led to the development of Kevlar, a synthetic material that is exceptionally strong. Many police officers owe their lives to Kwolek’s invention, because Kevlar,patented by Kwolek in 1966, is the material used in bullet-proof vests. It can also be used in underwater cables, brake linings, space vehicles, boats, parachutes, skis, and building materials. Kwolek has 16 other patents in her name.

Hedy Lamarr: Digital Communications — Hollywood movie star and beauty icon Hedy Lamarr became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications when she and her co-inventor George Anthiel, developed a secret communications system to help combat the Nazis in World War II. They manipulated radio frequencies between transmission and reception to form an unbreakable code and prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel. The pair received a patent in 1941, but it was not until decades later that the value of their invention became more apparent. Their “spread spectrum” technology galvanized the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible.

Thank you to Mary, Margaret, Stephanie and Hedy for making our lives
better! Now I’ll just grab my cell phone, a few paper bags for shopping and jump in my car, confident that visibility will be high no matter what the weather. And as always, grateful I don’t need a bullet proof vest.