Mothers of invention: Women invent Kevlar, signal flares and more

Catherine Thimmesh (Courtesy Photo)

The nuggets of truth became the gems. Catherine Thimmesh didn’t set out to write a book about women inventors. The author, who now has written six children’s books, was planning to write fiction, with true stories of innovative women woven in. The fiction gave way to nonfiction, as Thimmesh shared stories of women’s creativity. 

Finding mention of women inventors was slim when Thimmesh was working on “Girls Think of Everything-Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women,” published in 2000. 

Have things changed?

by Norma Smith Olson

MWP: What captured your imagination about women and inventions? 
Thimmesh: We take for granted that men can invent, but in fact, women are doing those very same things. Kids were just not hearing about it. Women are so underrepresented in books. I was trying to show and celebrate strong women and their accomplishments. 

I’m personally drawn to the inventiveness that comes from curiosity. I think it’s an innate quality that everyone has. Sometimes, it gets beaten out of us. 

What I found interesting, slash disturbing, was that I’d find whole shelves on inventors and inventions, [but] there would be 50 inventions by the most obscure man you could imagine and not a single woman mentioned. You had to wonder, are women just not inventing? What’s going on here? That’s what really got me excited and spurred me more to get this book out there. 

Who gave you the most inspiration? 
Women who stood out: Stephanie Kwolek who invented Kevlar [a light and flexible, bullet-stopping substance] and Patsy Sherman who invented Scotchgard [a substance that protects fabric from stains]. These scientists were working in essentially male-only labs and workplaces. When Sherman created this fantastic invention [her colleagues] were all excited. When they went to textile mills to test [her product], she was not allowed in simply because she was a woman. 

When Kwolek invented Kevlar, part of the process was to take the [dense, liquid] substance to a technician to put it in a machine called a spinneret. The [male] technician just said no. In the hierarchy, the scientist [Kwolek] is a little bit above the technician and the technician should do what the scientist asks, but he just said no. She had to go back again and again over time, proving that it was “safe” and wouldn’t break the machine. 

I found it fascinating and inspiring that these bright, creative, innovative women were able to accomplish what they did while facing day-to-day discrimination. 

In both of those stories the women gave a lot of credit to their teams rather than self. Do you think they were forced to do this or is it an innate female quality? 
It’s a little bit of both. I do think there’s something about the female quality to spread and share the accomplishment, because others contributed. I got the sense that they didn’t want to claim ownership of something that they felt was shared. 

Do you think of other traits or ways that inventors think differently? 
Grace Hopper was a computer compiler. [She invented the way to give computer commands in English, rather than mathematical code.] She voiced what I have always felt-the frustration with the phrase “but that’s the way it’s always been done.” She went as far as to say “let’s abolish that phrase from the English language.” I personally related to her attitude. I have always thought that. So much more could be accomplished-not just with invention and innovation-if people just stopped thinking that way. 

I think [inventors have] a willingness to be open to new ideas, to new perspectives. They are willing to look at something or do something in a different way. I think people who are innovative have great curiosity, determination, a lot of confidence. The women [inventors I wrote about had the ability to] follow through. 

How does one encourage an inventive outlook? 
I think it’s all about a new perspective and a willingness to take that on. With kids, that’s not a problem. As we get older, and certainly as kids get older, too, there’s that fear of being laughed at-or as adults in the board room, having the eyes rolling. People start censoring themselves. I think what inhibits creativity and innovation is the censoring, usually out of fear of what other people are going to think. 

I think we all have an innate level of curiosity. Being encouraged to follow through, wherever that takes you, if that gives you some crazy idea, that’s OK. I tell kids to sit upside down on their chairs, you know, to literally look at something from a new perspective, just let your mind go wherever it’s going to go and kind of see what happens. 

Have things changed in the past decade since you were researching and finding few books about women inventors? 
Yes. I have seen more books, especially for children, focusing on women’s accomplishments. Is it the same number of famous men? No. Is there still a ways to go in terms of balancing that? Yes. But, there is definitely improvement. 

Women inventors and their inventions
3000 BC His-ling-shi, develops method of gathering and weaving silk
1793 AD Catherine Littlefield Green (controversial), supplied Eli Whitney with the ideas for the cotton gin
1843 Nancy Johnson, hand-cranked ice cream machine
1845 Sarah O. Mather, underwater lamp and telescope
1848 Maria Telkes and Eleanor Raymond, first solar-heated house
1850 Martha Hunt Coston, signal flares
1870 Margaret E. Knight, flat-bottom paper-bag-making machine
1870 Mary Carpenter, sewing machine with easy-to-thread needle
1872 Amanda Theodosia Jones, vacuum canning
1886 Josephine G. Cochran, industrial dishwasher
1899 Letitia Geer, medical syringes
1902 Mary Anderson, windshield wipers
1905 Madam C.J. Walker, hair-care products for African-American women
1908 Melitta Bentz, drip coffee machine
1914 Mary P. Jacobs, brassiere
1917 May Conner, combined egg beater and potato masher
1917 Ida Forbes, electric hot water heater
1924 Elizabeth Phillips, The Landlord’s Game (early version of Monopoly) 
1928 Marjorie Stewart Joyner, permanent wave machine
1930 Ruth Wakefield, chocolate chip cookie
1950s Anna Kalso, earth shoes
1952 Grace Murray Hopper, computer compiler
1952 Virginia Apgar, Apgar Score to measure a baby’s health
1953 Gertrude Elion, wonder drugs for treatment of leukemia and kidney transplant rejection
1956 Patsy O. Sherman, Scotchgard
1957 Bette Nesmith Graham, Liquid Paper
1959 Ruth Handler, Barbie Doll
1965 Ann Moore, Snugli® Baby Carrier
1971 Stephanie Kwolek, Kevlar
1975 Ruth Siems, instant stuffing mix
1980s Jeanne Lee Crews, space bumper for NASA
1982 Martina Kempf, voice-controlled wheelchair
1984 Frances Gabe, self-cleaning house
1992 Georgena Terry, bicycle saddle for women
1994 Alexia Abernathy, Oops! Proof No-Spill Feeding Bowl

Source: “Girls Think of Everything-Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women” by Catherine Thimmesh. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, used with permission. 

Melissa Sweet has illustrated several of Catherine Thimmesh’s children’s books. Her inventive collages and drawings add to the story-telling about the women inventors. She lives in Rockport, Maine.