Fantastic Female Inventors

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Women in science are often really under-represented.

Mayim Bailik, who plays Amy Farrah-Fowler
in The BIg Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory has received popular acclaim for how it humanises and brings female scientists to its main cast of characters. Although it wasn't always quite as progressive (originally bringing in the ladies as only somewhat stereotypical girlfriend material), in the more recent seasons the women have their own respected careers and accomplishments that at times even surpass their male counterparts.
It may seem to be over exaggerating to call this an 'accomplishment', but in a time when so many movies still fail the Bechedal Test  and when in the UK men are six times more likely to work in science, it's easy to see why having realistic female role-models for potential scientists is important.

Today, I hope to bring you ladies and gents a few inspiring role models. While we all know the stories of the pioneering Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale,they are not the only women of history who made a difference with their ideas. 

Below is a list of some fantastic female inventors that really deserve more recognition.

mary anning
Mary Anning and her dog Tray
 The Discovery of Dinosaurs: Mary Anning (1799-1847)

In the early 1800s very little was known about dinosaurs, and some of the greatest discoveries of the ancient creatures came from an unlikely source.
Mary Anning was born in 1799 and was one of nine children of a poor family. As was sadly the case with many families in this period, death surrounded her. Only Mary and one other brother survived childhood, and Mary herself even had a lucky escape: while at a fair as a baby a thunderstorm struck and lightning killed the lady who was holding her as well as two other people but, miraculously, Mary was unscathed. Her father died when he fell from the cliffs at their seaside home and life became a struggle for the family. Mary grew accustomed to combing the beaches for seashells to sell to holidaymakers. Despite her limited start in life, Mary was an educated woman in that she could read and had taught herself geology,

One day in 1811, when Mary and her brother were poking around the cliffs to try to find small fossils to sell alongside their seashells, they came across an amazing find. Sticking out of the rock was a crocodile-like skull. They unearthed the stunning creature and in doing so found the very first complete fossil of a Ichthyosaurus. The fossil was brought by the local lord of the manor - Henry Hoste Henley - who in turn sold it to the Museum of Natural Curiosities in London.
Mary went on to discover more Ichthyosaurs as well as the Plesiosaurus in 1823, a flying Pterodactylus in 1828 and the fish-like Squaloraja in 1829. Braving the dangers of the crumbling cliff faces that had caused her father's death, Mary was able to unearth a remarkable number of quality fossils, which she went on to sell and which turned up in many academic works and collections of the day.

Unfortunately, due to the sexism of Victorian England, and her lowly social status, Mary rarely got credit for her finds, even if she was frequently sought out as an advisor and was well respected. When she died of breast cancer at age 47, the Geological Society (which didn't accept women as members until 1904) recorded her death and her local church commissioned a new stained glass window in her honour. It's rumored that the popular rhyme 'She sells sea shells by the sea shore' was about Mary. So try to remember this remarkable lady when you next wrap your mouth around that tongue twister!

Mary Anning's sketch of Plesiosaurus bones

The Birth of Bullet-Proof Vests: Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014)

Stephanie Kwolek
Science really is a mixed bag. Sometimes, when researching seemingly innocuous new discoveries something with a truly horrendous application is found and exploited. We need only look to TNT and nuclear fusion for this. But, thankfully, the universe is ultimately rather balanced and sometimes unusual things are found that also have unique potential for actually saving lives.So it was with Stephanie Kwolek's discovery of Kevlar - the main component in bullet proof vests.

Kevlar is a lightweight fiber that is stronger than steel and, through this, has the capacity to stop bullets in their track as a body armor. But, in 1965, when Stephanie and her colleagues at the DuPont Laboratory in Delaware were researching, body armor was far from their minds. Instead, they were looking for a strong lightweight fibre that might replace the steel in car tires so that fuel economy could be improved. Kwolek discovered a solvent that could dissolve long-chain polymer into a thinner and more watery solution than most solvents. Despite skepticism from her colleagues, she convinced them to let her put the solution on a spinneret that turned this liquid polymer into a fibre. When they happened upon the discovery they were thrilled by the new creation and the sheer volume of possible applications and Kwolek praised the teamwork that made all of these possible

Today, those police officers that have been saved by Kevlar have joined Dupont to form a 'survivor's club' that numbers over  3,100 members. Her legacy lives on in the thousands of lives saved by the buletproof vests, but kevlar also exists across the globe in the materials of cars and even in space through their inclusion in spacesuits.

"I don't think there's anything like saving someone's life to bring you satisfaction and happiness." Kwolek enthused as she claimed her award at the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Young Ada Lovelace  - by Kate Beaton at Hark! A Vagrant

The Invention of Programming: Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852)
Computers have been lurking around history for hundreds of years in some form or another, whether through programmed weaving machines, ancient greek 'programmable' robotics and more. However computers as we know it are largely recognised as getting underway when Charles Babbage invented the machine in the mid 1800s. A computer would be nothing without proper programming, and we should turn to the remarkable Ada Lovelace as the pioneer of this vital invention.

Ada was a world class mathematician and the daughter of the infamous Lord Byron. When she worked as an occasional research assistant (and frequent pen-pal) to Charles Babbage, she envisioned using the new computer for more than just number-crunching. Instead, she was interested in creating a model for how the brain creates thoughts and emotions. She created the first algorithm for the Analytical Machine and so secured her place in history.

She now lends her name to the Ada Initiative, which supports women (including trans and genderqueer women) in the development of free and open technology software. In this field women are woefully unrepresented - making up only 2% of developers - and the Ada Initiative takes its inspiration from Ms Lovelace to push forwards in changing this and to promote feminism in technology and culture.

Creating the Circular Saw: Tabitha Babbitt (1784-1853)

 Necessity is the mother of invention and often it will pull you out of traditional gender roles as you search for a solution. One day, around 1813, Tabitha Babbit was watching a pair of men use a pit saw. This was a traditional saw, pulled back and forth over a piece of lumber. The saw, due to the angle of the teeth, could only ever cut when it was drawn forwards, but had to be pulled back in order to be used again. Tabitha was not impressed by how 50% of the effort was entirely wasted, so decided to come up with an alternative.
As a weaver, she used her knowledge to suggest an answer: she invented a circular saw and attached it to her spinning wheel so that it was controlled by a spinning axel. 

The clever invention increased productivity in her community and was widely used, but Tabitha received very little financial benefit due to the Shaker community's belief that no patents should be filed.

Tabitha went on to be similarly inventive and practical in more unpatented devices: she managed to come up with a double spinning head for her spinning wheels, and developed a way of processing multiple cut nails at once rather than the tradtional cutting of one at a time. When she died in 1853, she was mid-way through developing an idea for a false-teeth manufacturing process.

 Weathering the Storm with Windshield Wipers: Mary Anderson (1866-1953)

Another lady who leant her mind to a very practical solution to a widespread problem was Mary Anderson in her invention of the widescreen wipers that you can see on every car today.

Mary Anderson
One wintry New York day in 1902 Mary was riding in a streetcar, clinging to the edge of her seat as the driver tried in vain to navigate through the blinding rain and snow. She exclaimed to her travelling companions why no one had developed a way of clearing the wind-shield so that people could actually see where they were going and they replied that many people had tried and failed to invent such things: it simply couldn't be done. Not a woman to take 'no' lightly, she set about creating sketches and plotting out her invention of windscreen-wipers and, once she had the concept designed, hired a company to make the model and filed a patent.

Seeing how valuable this invention would be, she wrote to a large Canadian company offering to sell her rights, but she was turned down when they decided that her invention had no commercial value. Unfortunately for Mary, she had little further endurance for pitching the idea and, over several years, decided to forget about the invention and let the patent expire. As so often happens in history, at a later date someone revived her idea, went to the right people, and proceeded to make a fortune.

 The Beginning of the American Red Cross: Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Not all inventions are of the type that can be patented, but they can still reach across the world to save and to change thousands of lives. The  Red Cross - a global charitable organisation that focuses on helping people in crisis, who ever they are - is one such life changing invention

Clara Barton
The Red cross was originally launched in America by Clara Barton. Clara was a young woman when the American civil war broke out and did her best to look after the floods of wounded soldiers that came to Washington, despite having had no prior nursing experience.

Like Florence Nightingale, Clara saw that the greatest dangers to the wounded were poor medical supplies and substandard care. She mustred the organisation needed to fix this problem, advertising for charitable donations to purchase these supplies and supplied them herself. When the war died down, she went to Switzerland where she became aware of the international Red Cross movement and decided to bring this formula back to America, establishing her own branch of the Red Cross in 1881. She focused on emphasising that the Red Cross was not only associated with the war efforts as they arrived and passed, but also with humanitarian relief from natural disasters. Her tireless work, speeches articles and petitioning ensured the lasting establishment and as a result, she has saved many, many lives all across the world.

 Nowadays, there are many institutions and scholarships put in place to make sure that we nurture the spark of female invention in the scientific communities of the future. But, as we have seen, often some of the most innovative inventions come from unusual places.

I'd like to leave you with two young and enterprising women to watch for the future who prove that invention has no age limit.

Kylie with her Invention
Kylie Symonds and the Chemo Backpack

Cancer is never something that should be inflicted on children, but the sad reality is that many suffer from it. Kylie Symonds, at just 11 years old, found herself battling cancer and relied upon chemotherapy to try to fight the disease. One of the necessary elements of chemotherapy is a set of large and unwieldy IV poles. The poles not only restricted her mobility but, she noted, also were very intimidating to many children. Necessity is the mother of invention and Kylie decided to invent a way around this problem. She created a backback adaptation that would carry the IV medicine instead so that patients could keep mobile and, through the backpacks's colourful designs, feel less frightened by the normally stark medical equipment and feel more, well, normal. The design is practical as well, with the IV drip back being kept in a protective metal spiral cage.

Now, well on the way to full recovery, Kylie is trying to raise funds to put the innovative backpack into production so that other children can benefit from it. If you'd like to help fund her invention, check out her page on

Deepika with her invention

Deepika Kurup and her Low Cost Water Purification

 Deepika, at only 14 years old, is bound to have a fantastic scientific career ahead of her. The inventive young lady from Nashua, New Hampshire, entered The Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge  and secured the $25,000 prize with the fantastic water purification system.

After seeing children in India drinking dirty water directly from a stagnant pool she was motivated to find a low cost way of solving the global water crisis. Spending 3 months of her free time and leafing through PHD papers on water purification methods, she found that the popular water purification methods were substandard because they required electricty to power UV lamps. Electricity, naturally, is in short supply in places where clean water is a challenge and is necessarily expensive. Other methods, such as using chemicals, lave a foul taste in the water. Under the support of her mentor from 3M, Deepika instead suggested a solar powered method and tested her machine in her back garden using contaminated water from the Nashua wastewater treatement facility. Her invention uses a system that exposes titanium oxide and inc oxide to sunlight that creates a cheical reaction to generate hydroxyl radicals which, in turn, kill harmful bacteria. Within a matter of hours, under this system, the water had significantly fewer coliform units and E.Coli colonies.

Deepika plans to work with 3M to develop her solar powered water filtration unit and will speak with other companies to try to gain funding and charity support. With such a passion for science, I doubt that this will be the last that we hear of her.

-F***k yeah female inventors
-How the big bang theory got good women in Science
-Five Female Scientists Who are Missing from the New 'Cosmos'
- The Inventor of Kevlar...Dies
- 11y/o girl invents Chemo Backpack
-15 Trailblazing women and how they made the internet
-Hark! A Vagrant 298
-19 Things you might not know were invented by women
-Herstory Network: Tabitha Babbit
-Trota: Cool chicks from history
-10 famous films that surprisingly fail the Bechedal test
-Why has the UK got so few women scientists?
-Bechedal Test Movie List
-BBC Primary History: Mary Anning
-Mary Anning: The Natural History Museum
- 10 useful inventions that went bad
-Creative Innovation
-The Red Cross
-Deepika Karup
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