© 2003

There’s something sad about Women’s History Month and African American History Month and all the other special interest history months. It’s sad because history has not celebrated everyone’s history equally. Some populations really have been overlooked. So we end up with a Polish American Museum in Winona, Minnesota, to help capture a piece of hidden history.

The following excerpt from a petition presented to the Commissioner of Patents in April 1890, on the occasion of the Patent Office Centennial, laments the fact that, at the time, less than 1% of U.S. patents included the name of a woman. Charlotte Smith requested

...that a room be set aside in the present Patent Office, to be used exclusively for the benefit of Woman Inventors, that there be exhibited models of the woman inventors only, that the same be properly labeled, giving full particulars of each invention...; that...a catalogue describing said inventions be published by the United States Government...

A room was not set aside in 1890; models of women's inventions were not exhibited. Sixty four years later, in 1954 a Senate Committee, based on sampling techniques, reported that 1.5% of patents granted in 1951 were awarded to women and that, on average, women’s patents were earning higher royalties.  

By 1990 I was invited by the Commissioner of the Patent and Trademark Office to respond to that 100 year old request. We prepared an exhibit, "A Woman's Place Is In The Patent Office," which became the centerpiece of the bicentennial celebration of the U.S. patent system and which remained in the nation's capitol for a full six months. As the cigarette commercial suggests, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” By 1990 Buttons to Biotech, a special study prepared by the USPTO, reported that during the prior year 6% of patents granted to U.S. residents included the name of a woman. That number increased to just over 10% during 1998. Perhaps we can extrapolate that 2003 figures will approach 15%. Perhaps we haven’t come such a very long way yet.

While the percentages are shockingly small, one can safely guess that, since the 1790 inception of the U.S. Patent system, perhaps some 500,000 to 600,000 U.S. patents have been granted to American women. Who are they? What human stories do they hide?

Surely women are as creative as men and the U.S. Patent Office has never knowingly discriminated against women. Then why don’t women receive more patents?

First, patents are expensive. Women have historically had less access to money. Further, at some periods in American history women could not own property—and, of course, a patent is a form of property that can be sold or rented. Consequently, When, in 1831 Ann Harned Manning invented her Mowing Machine, New Jersey, state law did not permit women to own property. Ann had no money to pursue the patent process nor could she have profited from the invention had the patent been granted to her. Consequently, she showed the idea to her husband and the patent, which was the forerunner of the McCormick reaper, was granted to Ann’s husband, William, who then went on to produce and sell the device. 

Further, it would appear unseemly in many 19th century settings for women to be as visible as inventors need to be. It was surely easier to tell their ideas to a father, brother or husband who would then apply for a patent in his name.

Second, women have historically had little access to scientific or technical education. Nor have they learned to be skilled with the tools needed to build prototypes—often referred to as “boy toys.” Consequently, women were not adept at turning ideas into prototypes. Of course, it has always been acceptable for women to ask others to build models. Tennessee inventor Monta Lea Kramer received a 1987 patent for a “Frame for Tensioning and Supporting Textiles for Needlework.” The device comes in several sizes and is now quite popular in shops that sell quilting supplies. In a letter, Mrs. Kramer describes how she conceived the idea, drew a picture and then “sent my husband out into the garage to build one for me.” 

Now that women have access to scientific education they can more easily become inventors or patent examiners. Gertrude Elion has won a Nobel prize and has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame because her creativity combined with her scientific education has led to at least 45 pharmaceutical patents including drugs that control leukemia, herpes, and gout. She found the drugs that blocked the immune response which triggers rejection of foreign tissue. That discovery was immediately applied to successful kidney transplants. "When you meet someone who has lived for 25 years with a kidney graft," says Elion, “there's your reward.”

However, Elion paid a price. She chose not to marry, instead selecting a career. She assures her friends that she had several proposals and jokes that “I could not find a wife.”

For inventors the problem is everything. Inventors—men and women—create solutions to problems they experience. Hence, Marjorie Joyner, while working in the beauty industry, was granted two patents related to hair care. Her 1928 patent for a “Permanent Waving Machine” became a huge success because it expedited the tedious process of using curling scissors which allowed for working only one curl at a time. Joyner’s machine allowed for generating a whole head of curls at once. It generated enormous profits for herself and for her employer, the Madame C. J. Walker Company.

Pam Ryan is typical of an inventor who experiences a problem. As a softball coach for her daughters’ teams she noticed that helmets did not fit well on girls who wore pony tails. This problem impacted their safety and their running ability. Her 1996 and 1997 patents for “Protective Helmet with Hair Entraining Aperture” have led to the manufacture of girl-specific softball helmets and will soon impact helmets for other sports, thus providing more opportunities for girls to participate safely and successfully. Her company, Designer Sports, markets these helmets as well as other sports equipment for women and girls.

The bedpan story is quite telling. In the 213 year history of the USPTO a total of roughly 8% of patents granted to Americans have included the name of a woman. Approximately 46% of bedpan patents have been granted to women. Shocking? Consider that people find problems in their immediate environment. Women have traditionally cared for the sick in clinics and had primary responsibility for aging parents. 
Most 19th century women’s inventions relate to the household because that’s where women lived, worked and saw problems. Ironing, for example, was done by women—usually on Tuesday. Mary Cook responded to a specific problem of her period. 

The first numbered patent for a sad iron was granted to Mary Ann B. Cook of Boston on December 5, 1848 (#5,590). Ms. Cook lauds her improvement as especially useful "for smoothing and polishing shirt bosoms. . . ." Mary Cook had a special knowledge of the problem: "Common...sad irons . . . have only one flat ironing or plane surface. They are not well adapted to polishing or glazing starched shirt-bosoms or other articles." She also had special knowledge to provide a solution: "Experience has taught me that a very high gloss or polish can only be successfully or practically effected by a small curved convex surface, one capable of retaining a suitable polishing-heat while being used."

Social history teaches us that housewives were responsible for ironing the "false front" that was attached to a man's shirt using button studs. The culture of the time demanded that this "shirt-bosom" be heavily starched and polished--a procedure that few modern housewives would tolerate. Judging from the number of Cook irons still available at antique auctions, there must have been many sold—and little wonder. Imagine the joy of owning an improved tool to make this onerous task a bit more tolerable!

Modern women who work in sophisticated scientific settings are confronted with sophisticated scientific problems—and they solve them with sophisticated scientific solutions. 

Carol Ford's 16 high tech patents (between 1987 and 2001) deal mainly with extending the useful life of the laser gyro to give Honeywell a competitive advantage for more programs, and to allow the use of the gyro in systems, like space stations, that can not be maintained. Prior to Ford’s inventions gyros had a limited life, thus limiting the time of space flight. Carol Ford developed a solution smaller than previously thought possible with a projected lifetime beyond 250,000 hours. Insight into the basic hollow cathode process led her to design an additional, slightly more complex, cathode that matches the hollow cathode discharge contour and which can achieve over one million hours of life (114 years!). To achieve this "miracle", she had to invent new technologies, new materials, and new accelerated testing methodologies. 

Honeywell's laser gyros have become one of the corporation's major products with a financial impact significantly in excess of one billion dollars. Additionally, new specialty contracts made possible by the new technology invented by Carol Ford include
$400 million for Space Station Freedom and $200,000 for MSX satellite application.

Women have faced many obstacles in addition to the many challenges all inventors must overcome. Perhaps the most serious obstacle for women has been blatant prejudice. 

Margaret Knight was a professional inventor with at least 26 patents between 1870 and 1915. The most famous of her inventions was machinery for the manufacture of square-bottomed paper bags patented in 1870, ’71, ’79 and 1880. This machinery significantly changed American shopping behavior. Knight was on the winning side of serious litigation. However, during the trial, opposition lawyers tried to convince the court that Knight, being a woman, could not possible have enough knowledge of machinery to design such a sophisticated device. 

Subsequently, Knight and a Newton, Massachusetts businessman set up the Eastern Paper Bag Company in Hartford, Connecticut, to profit from the machine. When she was invited to help install the machine in the factory where the bags were to be made, the workers would not listen to her advice, saying, "What does a woman know about machinery?"

Catherine O’Connell Ryan received six patents for self-locking nuts and bolts between 1904 and 1918. She hoped to license them for use on railroad and trolley tracks. Ryan found herself in litigation with such formidable adversaries as U. S. Steel Corporation, Carnegie Steel Company and Illinois Steel Company. The infringement litigation lasted from 1916 into the early 1930s because Ryan would not agree to a handsome out-of-court settlement without acknowledgement by the steel companies that the patent rights were hers. Ultimately she ran out of funds. In later years Kingsley Ryan, a lawyer and the youngest of Catherine’s six children met one of the attorneys for the steel industry. This lawyer admitted that all the steel attorneys knew that Ryan’s patents had been infringed but were not permitted to say so because it would be embarrassing to the company and also because U. S. Steel "shall not encourage any women to exceed their limitations of the kitchen."

In 1890, when Charlotte Smith presented her petition to the Patent Office she argued that although women had been granted less than 1% of patents to date, we should celebrate that women have had so much success, given their circumstances. Smith argued that it is a credit to women that they have invented at all, and that they have developed interesting and useful inventions—indeed, often labor-saving devices to ease their own labor. Truly, circumstances have changed and we can celebrate women’s ever growing success in the patent sphere. Yet, until we achieve a reasonable balance we will continue to need Women’s History Month as a reminder. 

Fred M. B. Amram is Morse Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Creativity and Communication. He is author of African American Inventors published by Capstone and, with Ellen Showell, is author of From Indian Corn To Outer Space: Women Invent In America published by Cobblestone.