Problems to solve: Sandra Brick shows a woman’s place is in the patent office

Sandra Brick (Photo by Amber Procaccini)

Let’s admit it-when we hear “inventions,” we think of scientific gadgets and gizmos, complicated devices making whirring noises. Turns out it isn’t necessarily so. 

Consider Carol Wior, inventor of the “slimsuit” (patented 1990)-a swimsuit that’s both slimming and comfortable. 

“Like all inventions, it was a solution to a problem: She figured there had to be a way to invent something that stays on in the water and makes you look good,” Sandra Brick said. “Some may say that’s not important-but if we feel good about ourselves, it frees us up to do great things.” 

She should know: Brick is considered one of the top experts on the subject of women inventors. She has traveled internationally to lecture on the subject, and with her husband, Fred Amram, Brick amassed the world’s largest single collection celebrating women’s ingenuity. 

The couple recently donated the Amram/Brick Woman Inventor Collection to the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del. Artifacts from the collection-which contains more than 800 items, plus books, slides and videos-have been exhibited in venues around the world, including the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Museum, and UNESCO in Geneva, Switzerland. 

Bedpans and patents 

In the 1950s, only about 1.5 percent of U.S. patents were granted to women, according to Brick. 

Many involved bedpans. In fact, 46 percent of bedpan patents have been granted to women. Why? Inventions are solutions to problems, Brick noted, and women have traditionally cared for the sick-hence, they knew what problems needed solving in the bedpan department. 

As women gained access to education and the workplace, their inventions changed. To take one example: Minnesotan Patsy Sherman, a chemist hired by 3M in 1952, co-invented Scotchgard. 

Today, only about 12 percent of patents applied for each year are by women. Nonetheless, women have made significant contributions, Brick said. We enjoy frozen pizza thanks to northeast Minneapolis’ own Rose Totino (dough patent, 1979). Then there’s Minnesotan Pam Turner and the side-threading needle (patent pending). 

Brick clearly relishes discussing these inventive women. Their stories spill off her tongue, her eyes twinkling as if she’s a proud daughter or personal friend. 

In Turner’s case, her mother’s necessity spurred the invention: Turner saw her mom struggle to thread needles as she aged and her eyesight dimmed. Turner’s invention means independence for seniors, those with disabilities, and everyone who can now mend their own clothes or sew on buttons without help. 

Turner is “a wonderful lady who stuck everything she had into her invention,” Brick said. 

Inventors everywhere

Brick stresses that we’re all inventors in some fashion, though we may not realize it. There are not only “thing” inventions, but also concept inventions, she added: “Social Security was an invention. The Textile Center is an invention. It was somebody’s vision.” 

When it comes to explaining the low percentage of women patent-holders, Brick resists generalizations (e.g, women don’t like to take credit). Everyone’s different, she noted-some men are reluctant to take chances or claim credit; some women do so readily. 

But non-supportive spouses, partners or parents can pose barriers-and that’s why, when leading tours of her exhibits, Brick always made sure to not only let girls know that they can invent, but to let boys know that girls can invent. “Girls don’t grow up in a vacuum,” she noted. 

Her goal for the Amram/Brick collection is that it be educational and accessible, and this goal drove the selection of the recipient museum. Three expressed interest: the Hagley, an inventions museum in Akron, and the Smithsonian. 

“We wanted the collection to be available to kindergarten teachers as well as professors from top universities,” Brick said. At the Smithsonian, her husband-a university professor-had trouble accessing the collection, “so how would a kindergarten teacher get access?” she asked. 

“Our collection would do no good behind locked doors.” 

Tactile textiles

Along with being a collector, curator, instructor and speaker, Brick is a textile artist-another form of invention. 

“I’ve never really thought, ‘Why fiber’ [versus other media],” she said. “But I love how involved I get in the process-carrying the water, stitching, twisting, braiding-it takes your whole body. It’s very kinesthetic.” 

Brick comes from a crafty family, for whom scouting was a tradition. “I was a Girl Scout forever,” she said. “Brownies on up.” In high school she did water ballet, for which she made her own costume. 

“Fabrics and inventions-both are around us every day,” she noted. If we pause to notice, “people express who they are through their inventions and through their clothing-just look at shows like ‘Project Runway.'” 

Brick doesn’t tune in, though: “I don’t need the drama,” she said with a chuckle. 

Sandra Brick’s current exhibit, “Shimmering Scarves,” is on display through April 28 at Hennepin County Library-Southeast Library, 1222 4th St. SE, Minneapolis, 612-543-6725.