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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 10:01 GMT
Tribute to inventive women
John Simpson
Stephanie Kwolek's invention, Kevlar, is the material inside bullet-proof vests
Women are behind a much larger number of inventions than they are generally given credit for, a researcher has found.

Deborah Jaffe has recently finished work on a book, Ingenious Women, in which she has investigated the female inventors who have changed the world with their ideas.

They include the windscreen wiper, the dishwasher, filter coffee, and the technology behind the bullet-proof vest.

"When I was writing the book people said to me, 'but women have never invented anything'," Ms Jaffe told BBC World Service's Everywoman programme.

"I found proof. Some of them are famous and some of them are not, but that doesn't matter."


The first patent granted to a woman was in 1637. Ms Jaffe said that in the UK, there had been 500 women inventors between that time and 1914, the point her research has reached so far.

Among these inventions were the dishwasher, dreamed up by Josephine Cochran in 1886, and the disposable nappy, the brainchild of Marion Donovan.

Disposable nappy
There's something about the mind of the inventor - that sort of creativity, of problem-solving - which I think women do all the time in their lives
Deborah Jaffe
A number of the inventions reflected the traditional role of women, and were devices designed to make domestic life easier.

But Ms Jaffe said that this was far the whole story.

"What surprised me was when you see that somebody's invented a type of signalling at sea, or a life jacket, or things for public health," she said.

Ada Lovelace, daughter of poet Lord Byron, was heavily involved in the conception and invention of the Analytical Engine, one of the earliest computers, in 1842, for example.

Patents registered in the US at around this time included a chain-link fire escape, by Gusta Aarons Bohannan, and Jenetta Valentine's cigarette-rolling machine.

It was also a woman who first allowed a glimpse of the bottom of the ocean, when Sarah Mather patented a submarine telescope and lamp.

Ms Jaffe said that women were in fact particularly suited to inventing.

"There's something about the mind of the inventor, that sort of creativity, of problem-solving, which I think women do all the time in their lives," she argued.

"They're doing 25 things at once juggling their lives. They probably don't consciously think of it as problem-solving, it's just a way of getting through."

Coffee shop
Melita Benz invented filter coffee by lining a hole-filled can with blotting paper
Ms Jaffe gave the example of Mary Anderson, who designed and built the first ever windscreen wiper.

"She lived in Alabama in the Southern United States, where it is very very hot, and one winter she went to New York," she explained.

"She'd never seen snow before, an in a blizzard she took a tram and was amazed, because the tram driver kept getting out of his cab to wipe the snow off the windscreen.

"This is such a wonderful example of problem-solving. She came up with a squeegee that hung on the outside of the windscreen with a spindle attached to one end, which went through a hole in the top corner of the windscreen frame and was attached to a handle on the inside.

"The driver could just wind the handle as he went along. If you think about it, a windscreen wiper is still just a squeegee."

'Hard to break through'

More recent pioneers have included Stephanie Kwolek, who in 1971 invented Kevlar, from which bullet-proof vests and skis are made, and Barbara Askins, who developed a way for US Space Agency Nasa to develop pictures from space using radiography and so dramatically enhance them.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage on the first computers
Less cerebrally, Ruth Handler, whose husband Elliott was the man whose name provided half of the Mattel trade mark, invented the toy that made the company famous around the world, Barbie, in 1959.

The current British Female Inventor of the Year is Tish Fearn, who is at Sheffield Hallam University as a member of the Product Development Team.

She won the award for her Lite-Lift shavings fork and paddock shovel.

But Ms Jaffe added that it was still very difficult for women to be "accepted" in engineering.

"Many many more women are going into design. But it's interesting that a lot of them stick with things like graphic design or fashion design," she said.

"Industrial design still seems a long way away from them.

"It's a traditional male environment, and I think like all these professions women can find it hard to break through."

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