There is an impressive number of everyday (and not-so-everyday) items invented by women. While we would have liked to feature them all, we chose five for today's Celebrating Women in Tech segment.
The Dishwasher—Josephine Cochran
Josephine Cochran (later Cochrane) was tired of her plates being chipped during hand washing, so she invented something to keep that from happening. Her invention, “Dish Washing Machine,” US Patent No. 355,139 (issued December 28, 1886), used pressurized hot water and soap to clean dishes stacked in wire racks in the machine. Josephine founded a company, Garis-Cochran Dish-washing Company, to market and manufacture dishwashers. It later was renamed Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company in 1897, becoming part of Hobart Manufacturing Company, and eventually part of KitchenAid. For any of us who have worked in food service and used Hobart machines, you can thank Josephine for your wet socks!
The Windshield Wiper—Mary Anderson
When visiting New York City in the winter of 1902, Mary Anderson from Alabama rode a trolley car on a chilly day. She noticed that the trolley driver could not see out the windows very well because of the sleet. When Mary returned to Birmingham, she worked with a designer to develop a hand-operated lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the vehicle. She applied for and received US Patent No. 743,801 in 1903, which expired in 1920. Unfortunately, she was ahead of her time. Cars were not popular at the time, and it was not until 1922 that the Cadillac began to offer windshield wipers as standard equipment—Mary never profited from her invention. However, those of us in the Pacific Northwest—in what sometimes seems to be constant rain—are infinitely grateful!
Stephanie Kwolek was one of the few women chemists at the DuPont Company in the 1940’s. She graduated from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, the women’s college connected to Carnegie Mellon University. In 1946, with many vacancies caused by men overseas at the end of WWII, she was offered a job as a chemist at Dupont. Dupont was trying to find a lighter weight but durable replacement for steel in radial tires. Stephanie’s work was focused on aromatic polyamides that are prepared from solution. In 1961, she was instrumental in developing a flame-resistant fiber that was released under the trade name Nomex®; a familiar name to firefighters. As she continued to work with these polymer solutions, she developed a solution that was yellowish and unusually thin compared to the typically clear and molasses-like polymer solutions. Initially, no one at Dupont wanted to let her use the spinners for her solution because they thought it would clog them. She convinced one technician to spin the fibers from her solution and Kevlar was born. She was granted US Patent No. 3,819,587 in 1974. Once the benefits of this discovery came to light, Dupont developed the initial Kevlar into products people use every day, from bulletproof vests and other protective wear, TRX® straps used in gyms, and oven mitts!
Home Security System—Marie Van Brittan Brown
Marie Van Brittan Brown worked as a nurse in Queens, New York, and her husband was an electronics technician. Because neither one of them worked a typical nine-to-five job, Marie wanted a way for her to see who was at her home and to contact the authorities as soon as possible. Her system included a camera that could see visitors through one of a series of peepholes, a television monitor that could be located anywhere in the house (closed circuit television), a two-way microphone that allowed her to talk to the visitor without opening the door, and an alarm button that could contact the authorities merely by pressing it. The system even included remote controlled door locks! She and her husband applied for a patent in 1966, which was granted in 1969 as US Patent 3,482,037. Many companies still use her system today, and the techniques described in her patent have been the basis for most security systems in use today.
ImageNet—Dr. Fei-Fei Li
ImageNet is a humongous database of over 15 million images used to train computers to recognize and understand the contents of a picture. Many people are involved, but it is generally agreed that Dr. Fei-Fei Li started it all. Dr. Li lead the way in focusing on the quality of the data used to train the networks when others in the field were concentrating on the models and algorithms. Using the principles developed by WordNet, and employing the Amazon Mechanical Turks process to crowdsource annotations of images, ImageNet was born. The database allows programmers to train their neural networks for image recognition. Dr. Li is an inventor on several patents, among them US Patent 11,087,201, issued in 2021.