It's Time to Recognize the Contributions of WOMEN INVENTORS

By Fitzroy, Nancy Deloye | USA TODAY, January 1999 | Go to article overview

It's Time to Recognize the Contributions of WOMEN INVENTORS


Fitzroy, Nancy Deloye, USA TODAY


From the ironing board and the baby carriage to a torpedo discharge system and a triggering device for underground nuclear test, women inventors have had a major impact.

ENGINEERING HISTORY proves that mechanical genius isn't gender-based. Women long have been inventive in all fields of endeavor. For centuries, they have designed and built engines, manufacturing machines, and a variety of control and instrumentation devices. Indeed, women engineers historically have made strides in improving the conditions of society as a whole and of the labor force in particular.

From the 1800s to the 1900s, most inventions by women revolved around their world of home and farm. They included such things as the ironing board, spinning and weaving machines, a rotary loom, a fire escape, the baby carriage, a globe for teaching geography, the fountain pen, and a number of plows and other farming devices and tools.

As early as 1809, Mary Kies filed a patent in her own name in the U.S. I stress "in her own name" because the work of many women has been credited to others in the historical record. She is recognized for her method of weaving straw with silk or thread.

Social issues and limitations had a significant impact on female roles in society. In 1852, public high schools began admitting women. Consequently, their educational pursuits altered their roles in society as well. The scope of their inventions also changed.

With access to public high schools, women began to make significant contributions to industry. Some historians strongly question their engineering contributions, but consider the list: ventilator systems for railroad cars, a volcanic furnace for smelting ore, a chain elevator, and a screw-crank for steamships.

Gaining access to public education transformed women's paths to knowledge. In 1884, for example, Kate Gleason became the first woman engineering student at Cornell University. She made history as the first female mechanical engineer.

Gleason was successful in opening up new markets, inside and outside the U.S., for the family business, Machine Tool Manufacturing Works, Rochester, N.Y. These endeavors led to the founding of The Gleason Works, which was a result of her urging her father to develop his gear-planing invention and to concentrate his efforts on making gears for the automotive industry. Her design of a worm gear won her election as the first woman member of The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1914.

Lillian Gilbreth joined ASME in 1926, was named Fellow in 1945, and in 1950 was the first woman to be recognized as an Honorary Member, ASME's highest position. Internationally noted for her research in the field of time and motion studies, she continued and advanced the work of her husband, Frank Gilbreth, establishing many labor-saving techniques in the area of scientific management. She was honored in 1959 by the Industrial Management Society, the citation reading: "No woman in this century has contributed so much toward making production scientific. Increased production with greater efficiency has made possible the American standard of living and much credit is due to the continuing efforts of Mrs. Gilbreth."

Lillian Gilbreth was the first woman to receive the Washington Award. Presented in 1954, it recognized her "for accomplishments that promote the happiness, comfort and well-being of humanity through engineering." In addition to being a prolific author, she earned several degrees, including a Ph.D. from Brown University in 1915 and an M.S. in engineering from the University of Michigan in 1928. When she received a doctor of engineering degree from Rutgers University in 1929, she was considered the first woman to be so honored.

Lillian Gilbreth inspired her children to write as well. Two of them, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine G. Carey, wrote the bestseller, Cheaper by the Dozen, based upon events in the Gilbreth home. …

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