Did you know the first prototype for word processors was invented by a woman? She created them to help ease the work of secretaries, a profession led by women.
Or did you know the manufacturing process for non-reflective glass (the type you’re probably reading this article through right now, or that’s on your glasses, camera lenses and windshield) was patented by a woman? And what about the inventions we hardly even think about on a regular basis, like hydyne, the fuel that launched Americans into space in the 1960s, or the determination process for studying nuclear-borne oceanic contamination? Again: all invented by women.
Whether or not these inventors surprised you, it’s shocking how many everyday inventions we use without acknowledging the inventors that helped bring them to us. Especially when those inventors patented them against all odds. I write and produce a daily women’s history podcast called Womanica, and for Women’s History Month, we are highlighting 23 incredible innovators—women inventors and thinkers, who helped shape the world we live in today.
In writing their stories, I’ve gotten to learn about not just these women’s incredible inventions, but the circumstances that inspired them. Take, for example, Frances Gabe, a woman who hated household chores so much, she created an entire self-cleaning house. Or Marie Van Brittan Brown, whose late-night work schedule motivated her to create a closed-circuit television system for her front door—what we know today as the modern home security system.
Here are five women innovators and the inventions they created.
There would be no Microsoft Word, no Google Docs, without Evelyn Berezin. As the only woman in her office in 1951, Berezin was told to “design a computer.” And without having ever seen one before, she did–to great success. In 1969, she founded the Redactron Corporation, a startup in Long Island and the first company dedicated to manufacturing and selling her computerized typewriters. Berezin called her machine the “Data Secretary,” and while it looked pretty different from the computers we know today (it was about the size of a small refrigerator with no screen), it changed the game for secretaries by allowing them to edit, delete, cut and paste text. As the New York Times described Berezin in a 1972 profile, “Miss Berezin, a serious, soft-spoken individual, nevertheless talks at times like a systems engineer (which she is), a sales executive (which she is) and a proponent of a sophisticated product (which she is). She is also obviously a woman on the senior level of a field where her sex are still a rarity at any level.”
Katherine Burr Blodgett
Very few modern inventions would make sense without the work of Katherine Burr Blodgett. In 1938, the physicist and chemist patented her process for “invisible” or non-reflective glass, which is the soapy film that coats the likes of picture glass and eyeglasses, as well as retail displays or the glass between you and a school of fish at the aquarium. Over the course of nearly ten years, Blodgett developed a process to block out light glares. She built up uniform, one-molecule-thick films one by one, up to about 3,000 layers at a time, and placed them on top of a solid surface. By doing so, she could precisely control just how much light her films would cancel out, making glass treated with it nearly invisible. Blodgett’s original soap coatings probably aren’t what’s on your glasses or TV screen now (it washed off too easily), but it was the patent that set modern-day durable non-reflective coatings into business.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner is a name you may not know well, but her inventions are most certainly a part of your life. Kenner came from a family of inventors: her father patented multiple inventions for different trades (including a clothing press that could fit in suitcases), her grandfather invented a light signal for trains, and her sister invented and sold board games. Kenner herself ended up with five patents, still the largest number of patents of any African American woman, though her journey to securing them was less straightforward. The most famous of her inventions was the sanitary belt, which prevented menstrual blood from leaking onto clothing. Kenner first invented it in the 1920s, but couldn’t afford a patent. In 1957, the Sonn-Nap-Pack Company caught wind of Kenner’s more refined idea for a sanitary belt and contacted her to market it– but they declined when they found out she was Black. Mary patented the invention that year, but by the 1970s, pads and tampons had overtaken belts in popularity. Mary opened a flower shop, instead, and continued inventing on the side: she’d go on to create a carrier attachment for walkers and wheelchairs (which she invented after her sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis), a toilet paper holder and a mounted back washer and massager.
Mary Sherman Morgan
This inventor’s most famous creation might not ring a bell, but it propelled the U.S. into the Space Age: hydyne. Mary Sherman Morgan was born in 1921 to a large farming household in North Dakota and didn’t attend school until she was nine years old. She won a scholarship to attend college in Ohio, but the U.S. was already deep in World War II, and Morgan left school to work at a nearby weapon’s plant. After the war, she was the only woman, and the only person without a college degree, working in the engineering department. It was there that she was asked to complete the following task: invent a rocket fuel that will give the Jupiter-C rocket, the U.S.’ bid in the space race, the necessary power to reach orbit. To top it off, since the engine had already been developed without the necessary fuel, she had to retrofit the fuel to the engine—a gargantuan task. But Morgan prevailed, and her hydyne fuel sent Explorer I into orbit on January 31, 1958. Hydyne is no longer used, as more powerful fuels have been invented since, but Morgan’s name is often left out of history books discussing that first blast-off. And Morgan had a sense of humor, too: since the propellant used LOX (liquid oxygen), Morgan cast a bid to name her new fuel formula “Bagel,” so the Explorer would be fueled by Bagel and LOX. The U.S. Army did not share her sense of humor, and hydyne stuck.
Katusuko Saruhashi developed the first method to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in seawater. In other words, she enabled researchers to measure how much CO2 the ocean releases and absorbs, years before those measurements were instrumental to exploring and understanding the climate crisis. Saruhashi entered the world of science at 21, after seeing how many women without professional backgrounds were left struggling financially post-World War II. She developed the first method—and now the global standard—for measuring CO2 using temperature, pH and chlorinity. Saruhashi’s work on ocean climate also led her to be one of the first whistleblowers on nuclear contamination. Saruhashi and her colleagues tracked ocean circulation around Bikini Atoll, a U.S. nuclear testing site 2,300 miles southwest of Japan. They found that currents pushed radiation-contaminated waters back towards Japan—leaving Japan with much higher levels of nuclear fallout than the western U.S. They also proved the speed and rate of contamination, warning that the entire Pacific Ocean would be contaminated by 1969. Her work, even when interrogated by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, proved accurate and was a huge part in bringing an end to above-ground nuclear testing at the height of the Cold War. Saruhashi also established the Society of Japanese Women Scientists, specifically to recognize, solve and discuss problems women scientists faced in the field.
Carmen Borca-Carrillo is a writer and producer for the Wonder Media Network and LinkedIn sponsored podcast Womanica, a show highlighting fascinating women from throughout history in five minutes a day.