When asked to name important inventors, you might start with Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, or Leonardo da Vinci. But there’s a common denominator here; they are all men.
What about Marie Van Brittan Brown? Ann Tsukamoto? Or Mary Anderson? You might not know their names, but these are just three of the women inventors behind everyday objects and scientific innovations that have changed the world — from the first modern home security system to the dishwasher.
Women inventors have played a significant role throughout history across the globe, but haven’t always received credit for their work. Notably, the late Katherine Johnson — one of the trailblazing African American mathematicians to work at NASA — whose work played a significant role in several missions during the Space Race, including calculating the trajectory needed to get the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and back. Johnson was practically erased from history as well as facing sexism and racial discrimination at the time.
Besides the fact that their contributions have often been downplayed and overlooked, women — particularly women of color — have also historically had fewer resources to apply for patents and market their inventions.
Women and girls should be at the forefront of scientific innovation — and they should be given their flowers. With that in mind, we're highlighting nine everyday things that wouldn’t exist without these women inventors.
1. This Black nurse from Queens who created the first home security system (US, 1969).
Did you know that home security systems wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for a Black nurse from Queens?
As a full-time nurse in New York in the 60s, Marie Van Brittan Brown often felt unsafe in her home due to rising crime rates and slow police responses in her neighborhood. Being the problem-solver she was, Brown decided to do something about this and invented a complex system to protect her home and neighborhood, with the help of her husband who was an electronics technician. Brown's original invention looked like something from a spy movie. It had everything: a camera, monitors, a two-way mic, peepholes, and even an alarm button that when pressed would immediately call the police via a radio.
In 1969, she and her husband Albert Brown were granted a patent for her invention. Brown's initial device paved the way for future home and business security systems, not to mention the closed-circuit television systems we use for surveillance around the world today.
2. This Black woman who created the 'ingenious' blueprint for the fruit press (US, 1916).
There’s really nothing better than a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice on a hot day, right? But it’s often not that easy to extract all the juice and squeezing oranges by hand can quickly become a muscle-building chore. Nowadays, special kitchen gadgets exist to make this process easier. But who do you think invented the juicer? A clever African American woman called Madeline Turner from Oakland.
Presumably tired of squeezing fruit by hand all the time, Turner created an elaborate machine that could extract juice from fruit like oranges, apples, and lemons. The fruit was placed in a feed opening passed through cutters where it was halved between plates and the juice extracted.
In April 1916, Turner was granted a patent for her invention and a patent review committee member is said to have called it "ingenious." Turner's Fruit-Press, as it was called, was exhibited at the Panama-California Exposition in the same year and paved the way for the development of the modern fruit press.
3. This woman from Ohio who invented the first automatic dishwasher (US, 1886).
It’s safe to say, the dishwasher was a kitchen game-changer and we can thank Josephine Cochrane for that.
In the late 1800s, at the age of 45, an unemployed Josephine Cochrane decided: “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I'll do it myself.” Cochrane regularly hosted dinners at her home and was tired of her fine china plates being accidentally chipped by her servants. As the granddaughter of fellow inventor, John Fitch (who invented the steamboat), Cochrane created a machine that would wash her dishes faster than her servants and be less likely to break them.
Though other prototypes existed at the time, Cochrane’s design was the first automatic dishwasher that used water pressure rather than scrubbers to remove debris.
When Cochrane's alcoholic husband died in 1886 leaving her with masses of debt, she applied to patent her invention and opened her own production factory, which later became the appliance giant now known as KitchenAid.
4. This Chinese-American chef who created the stir fry pan ( US, 1970).
Do you remember the time you had your first stir fry? Whether it was packed with veggies or another delicious combo, it takes a special type of pan to get that stir fry magic. Yet, the iconic stir fry pan we know today isn’t as old of an invention as you might think. In fact, this modern kitchen staple was invented in 1970 by Joyce Chen.
Chen was a Chinese-American chef, entrepreneur, and food pioneer who popularized North-style Chinese cuisine in the US. In China, stoves have a circular hole which a traditional wok fits into perfectly. But in the US, woks didn’t work as well. Chen saw here an opportunity for innovation.
5. This real estate developer from Alabama who invented windscreen wipers (US, 1903).
If you’ve been in a car, you know how a shift in weather can suddenly change what was originally a smooth journey into a not-so-smooth journey. Enter the windscreen wiper.
This essential and simple device wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Mary Anderson, who in the 1990s, saw this problem and did something about it.
On a winter's day in 1903, Anderson was visiting New York when she noticed that her driver was forced to open his window to clear the snow from his windscreen. But every time the window was opened, the passengers in the car got cold.
Anderson started drawing her solution of a rubber blade that could be moved from inside the car, and that same year was awarded a patent for her device.
Initially, the invention proved unsuccessful with car companies, who believed it would distract drivers. Sadly, Anderson never profited from her invention, even when the wipers later became standard on cars.
6. This woman from who created the paper bag machine (US, 1871).
The paper bag: a simple design, yet an effective tool for everyday use. Yet the making of this stroke of genius wouldn't have been made possible without Margaret Knight.
In the 1870s, working in a Massachusetts paper bag plant, Knight re-imagined the paper bag with a flat bottom, making it far more efficient and easier to use. From this idea, Knight went on to make a machine that automatically folded and glued paper-bag bottoms.
To no surprise, a man named Charles Annan attempted to steal Knight’s idea and sadly received credit for the patent. However, Knight took Annan to court and received her patent in 1871, and went on to file over 20 patents in her lifetime. Talk about girl boss energy.
7. This feminist from Washington D.C. created the precursor to Monopoly (US, 1903).
Have you ever played Monopoly and wondered the origin behind this classic board game? Monopoly’s origins begin not with Charles Darrow 80 years ago, but decades before with a bold, progressive woman named Elizabeth Magie, who until recently was largely lost to history, and in some cases deliberately written out of it.
Elizabeth Magie was a writer, feminist, and a game designer who created "The Landlord’s Game" — a precursor to Monopoly — to illustrate economic theories, such as the belief of political economist and journalist Henry George that economic value acquired from land should belong to all members of society equally. Talk about social justice, education, and entertainment all in one game.
Magie filed her patent in 1903, a time when women represented less than 1% of people applying for patents in the US.
Her game was not-so-ironically stolen by Charles Darrow. Magie never got credit for the part she played in creating the concept behind the game we know today as Monopoly. But today we give this woman inventor her flowers.
8. This theoretical physicist who created the tech for the Caller ID (US, 1970s).
The Caller ID feature on our phones has enabled many people across the world to screen known, unknown, or unwanted phone calls. This is thanks to American theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson.
Her breakthroughs in telecommunications are credited with paving the way for others to invent the portable fax, fiber optic cables, and solar cells.
Moreover, she is the first African-American woman to gain a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first African-American woman to lead a top-ranked research university. Now that’s Black girl magic.
9. This artist from Austria came up with the foldable umbrella (Austria, 1928).
Who invented the first folding umbrella? A Polish woman named Slawa Horowitz in 1928.
Horowitz was an artist, teacher, and interior designer originally from Poland who had settled in Austria due to political unrest at the time.
Frustrated by having to carry her large and cumbersome umbrella, she invented and patented a folding umbrella design. Patents for folding, telescopic umbrellas date back to at least 1896 but Horowitz’s improvements to the design were elegant; she simplified the folding mechanism, allowing the whole umbrella to be more practical and small enough to fit in her handbag.