Tracing the True Mothers of Invention

Who invented the first cradle? The first bow and arrow? No one knows. But chances are the cradle was invented by a woman and the bow and arrow by a man because in most societies the sexual division of labor left women in charge of babies and men in charge of the hunt.

Histories of technology herald the bow and arrow as a great leap forward. They do not mention the cradle. "Mothers of invention have been left out of these histories," notes Autumn Stanley, a Stanford-based scholar who hopes to change this one-sided interpretation of technology in her comprehensive account of female inventions and inventors.

Stanley has combed 19th- and 20th-Century American archives and discovered references to hundreds of female inventors--sometimes nameless. It is not surprising that American women were as ingenious as American men. They lived in the same expanding nation where the farm population confronted vast acres ready to be planted and where change was synonymous with improvement, especially change inspired by the continuing industrial revolution. In 1817 Anne Harned Manning and William Manning of Plainfield, N.J., co-invented the first American reaper, which William patented and generally is credited with in histories of farm machinery.

This is typical of the era. Nineteenth-Century women were discouraged from claiming credit for their ingenuity for three reasons, Stanley argues. First, patenting was expensive. It cost the equivalent of a year's salary of a female factory worker to go through the procedure. Small wonder that a female inventor might choose to sell out cheaply to someone with money, or simply make her invention public property.

The second reason is the property acts that gave all profits from a married woman's endeavors to her husband. Should she have a reasonably stable marriage, she would reasonably let him patent the invention in his own name. Elias Howe admitted that after he struggled with the sewing machine for 14 years, it took his wife only two hours to solve the problems and make the machine work. After the Civil War, state after state passed married women's property acts, allowing women to keep their own money within a marriage. This coincides with an avalanche of patents by women. Later in the century Helen Blanchard of Portland, Me., patented a zigzag device, one of many sewing machine improvements patented by women. The rush of patents taken out by women after the Civil War supports Stanley's premise that women avoided patenting until the profits would be theirs.

The third reason was credibility. Women feared that businesses would shy away from buying something invented by a woman. These women typically invented machines that would help them in their work and then sold them cheaply to patent lawyers, who often made large profits. Among these is an anonymous Mary S., in St. Louis, who sold 53 patents to unscrupulous lawyers before her death, at the age of 29.

Most of these inventors worked, some as farmers homesteading their own acreage. Others worked in the garment industry, which helps explain the improvements in sewing machines. Richer women who stayed at home concentrated on improving household tasks, like Sara Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, who patented a cast-iron sink with a washboard cast into the sides, which added millions to her already handsome estate.

In the 20th Century, the women's sphere expanded along with laws enabling women to profit by their own creativity. Women physicians Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering developed the DPT vaccine (which they did not patent, making it a gift to the public). Gladys Hobby patented Terramycin, and most recently Rosalind Yalow invented, but also did not patent, radio immunoassay.

Stanley points out that there are no women in the Inventors Hall of Fame. But even omitting these medical pioneers, she has her nominees. There is Betty Graum who invented Liquid Paper (the writer's friend); Grace Hopper, a rear admiral in the Navy who invented the original computer language that led to COBOL; Patsy Sherman, who developed Scotchgard--which has protected not only rugs and furniture but the tiles of the Space Shuttle, and Ollidene Weaver, a USDA researcher whose Super Slurper is an absorbent substance that can hold water in soil, or absorb water during floods.

Stanley's work is more than a list of inventors. She is concerned with the way historians and anthropologists define inventions. In the past, folk medicines and recipes were dismissed as women's work and not worth acclaiming. Recent patents, however, include crochet stitches and cookie recipes as well as military hardware and new forms of life. What a country chooses to protect with patents and dignifies as invention is a useful guide to that nation's values.

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