A recent episode of the great NBC series Timeless featured Hedy Lamarr, the beautiful mid-20th century actress who, as a hobby, helped develop the principles behind Bluetooth and WiFi. Yet Lamarr is relatively unknown in history, far more famous for her acting than her scientific achievements. Although women have been historically overshadowed by men in science and in earning recognition for their inventions, that’s changing. We’ve previously featured several of these women in Listosaur stories, including Rosalind Franklin, who helped discover DNA’s structure, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars. Here are five more great inventions or scientific breakthroughs made by women.
5. Ruth Benerito: Wash-and-Wear Cotton Clothing
When is the last time you took out an iron to press your casual-wear clothing? If you’re like many people, the answer is “Never.” We can thank Ruth Benerito for developing wash-and-wear cotton fabrics. Born in New Orleans in 1916, Benerito excelled in school, earning degrees in chemistry, physics and math. While working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1950s, Benerito developed a way to chemically treat cotton that not only made it resistant to wrinkles, but also flame-retardant and stain-resistant.
Benerito’s development is often hailed as having saved the cotton industry, which at that time faced stiff competition from new synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester. Yet Benerito downplayed her work. In a 2004 interview, she noted, “I don’t like it to be said that I invented wash-wear because there were any number of people who worked on it and the various processes by which you give cotton those properties. No one person discovered it or is responsible for it, but I contributed to a new process of doing it.” Benerito, who died in 2013, held an astounding 55 patents.
4. Mary Anderson: Windshield Wiper
Some products seem so simple and obvious both in design and fulfilling a need, they seem as if they would have been easy to invent. Yet during a visit to New York City in 1902, Mary Anderson watched as the trolley operator kept the front window open so he could wipe the rain and sleet away. No one had thought of a way to alleviate that issue yet, so Anderson hired an engineer to design what she called a “Window Cleaning Device,” (aka windshield wiper) which she patented in 1903.
Incredibly, when Anderson tried to sell the product to a marketing firm, an official noted the company saw no commercial value in the product. Only later, in the 1920s — after her patent had expired — did automakers begin incorporating wipers into their vehicles. Anderson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.
3. Erna Schneider Hoover: Computerized Telephone Switching
As a young girl growing up during the Great Depression, Hoover was inspired by the story of scientist Marie Curie. After graduating with several different degrees, including a Ph.D from Yale University in philosophy and foundations of mathematics, Hoover went to work for Bell Labs. The primitive telephone switching systems of the era were just transitioning from electronic to computerized switching, and were prone to crashing under heavy loads. Hoover wrote a program that helped the switching system maintain order.
As Hoover noted years later, “To my mind it was kind of common sense … I designed the executive program for handling situations when there are too many calls, to keep it operating efficiently without hanging up on itself. Basically it was designed to keep the machine from throwing up its hands and going berserk.” Hoover received a patent for her system in 1971. The principles of Hoover’s work are still being use in telecom switching systems today.
2. Stephanie Kwolek: Kevlar
While working as a chemist at DuPont in the mid-1960s, Kwolek sought to develop a lightweight fiber to be used in tires. Kwolek and her colleagues tested various polymers under different conditions and at one stage, Kwolek ordered further testing on a byproduct that would normally be discarded. What she discovered was a lightweight fiber five times stronger than steel by weight — Kevlar.
Kevlar has since been used for many different purposes, in everything from boats and airplanes to parachutes. It’s obviously best known, however, for its use in bulletproof vests, which have saved countless lives. Kwolek, who died in 2014 at age 90, once noted, “I don’t think there’s anything like saving someone’s life to bring you satisfaction and happiness.”
1. Hedy Lamarr: Bluetooth and WiFi Principles
Born in Austria, Lamarr fled a bad marriage in her early 20s and escaped to Paris. There, she had the good fortune to meet MGM founder Louis B. Mayer, who convinced her to move to Hollywood and begin making movies. Promoted by Mayer’s studio as the “world’s most beautiful woman,” Lamarr starred in more than two-dozen films from 1938-1958.
But Lamarr also loved tinkering and had a creative mind. During World War II, when she learned that radio-guided torpedoes could be jammed by the enemy, she and a friend, composer-pianist George Antheil, developed a frequency-hopping system, for which they received a patent in 1942. As it turned out, the system was too impractical for use during the WWII, but the Navy adopted it in 1962. Lamarr’s work in that field is credited with contributing to the principles of Bluetooth and WiFi technology.