[Guest post] “Say Thanks to a Woman”: How patents can help you (IWD special)

On today's International Women's Day (IWD) The IPKat has received and is pleased to host a contribution by Katfriends Giorgia Golzio and Daniele Golzio reflecting on the contribution of women to technological advancement, with profiles of some notable female inventors throughout history being reviewed too. Here's what Giorgia and Daniele write:

“Say Thanks to a Woman”: How Patents Can Help You!

by Giorgia Golzio and Daniele Golzio

You might have come across The Simpsons’ episode “Girls Just Want to Have Sums”, in which Homer challenges the ability of women to invent. With the typical Simpsons humour, this episode stigmatizes the stereotype that women cannot do maths, be engineers or inventors. In reality, as Marge points out, women should be credited for many important inventions we have been using for years, most likely without knowing who was behind these.

Bette Nesmith Graham
and her Liquid Paper,

All this is reflected in patent documentation, but before looking at some examples – including the one mentioned by Marge – it is worth recalling that, throughout history, women have been confronted with hurdles other than those an inventor normally faces. For instance, until the late 1800s, laws forbade women in most U.S. states from owning property or entering into legal agreements in their own names. Instead, a woman’s property would be in the name of her father or husband! The same applied to IP.

So here’s our absolutely non-exhaustive collection of some notable women inventors to celebrate International Women’s Day:

Sybilla Masters (1676-1720) developed a new corn mill in 1712 but was denied a patent because she was a woman. In 1715 the patent G.B. No. 401 (1715) “Cleaning and Curing Indian Corn” was granted successfully in her husband's name, Thomas Masters. This was also the first patent in the British Colonies.

As Marge recalls, Bette Nesmith Graham (1929-1984) invented the first correction fluid in her kitchen in 1951: the so-called Liquid Paper. Even though she could not afford the fees for establishing any IPRs and never patented the formula, she was a successful entrepreneur. The overall number of patents about “correcting fluids for correction of typographical errors” grew steadily as well as the sales, until the Backspace Key was invented … computers took over typing machines and liquid paper became an item for museums.

But we all know the other invention Marge was talking about: the Windshield Wipers. This was thanks to two women: Mary Anderson (1866- 1953) and Charlotte Bridgwood (1861-1929). They were the first patenting manual and automatic versions of windshield wipers, i.e., US743801A and US1253929A, when women were a minority in driving cars. However, because of legal issues and early scepticism from car manufacturers, they didn’t get credit or wealth from that. However, when the patent expired, usage of windshield wipers surged. Rain, ice, sleet and dirt will always obstruct vision through windshields on cars, trains, boats and aircraft. Windshield Wipers will always be an object of improvement using new materials, shapes, mechanisms, automatic activation, sensors, noise reduction, aerodynamic resistance, etc., producing new inventions reflected in a steady increase of related patents. And even though “ultrasonic wiperless windshield cleaners” have been proposed and patented it seems that the windshield wipers are die-hard!

Katharine Burr Blodgett and ...

Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) was a research scientist and also the first woman to work as a scientist for General Electric Laboratory in Schenectady, New York. In 1953, together with Irving Langmuir, Blodgett developed a method to spread monomolecular coatings one at a time onto glass or metal. When this method was applied to glass it made the material transparent (or “invisible”). This type of non-reflective coating is now called Langmuir-Blodgett film and is widely used in a variety of industries, including aerospace, semiconductors, optics, and even filmmaking. The first movie production to use a camera with Blodgett's glass was Gone With the Wind. Her first seminal patent was US2220860A, “Film structure and method of preparation”. More patents followed. The Langmuir-Blodgett film technology is essential for the preparation of 2D materials and nanotechnology. Blodgett patent appeared 35 years before “Nanotechnology” was invented!

Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913) was not happy to have her dishes damaged during washing and came up with a dishwasher at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, with great reviews. She received an award for design and durability. Her machine featured compartments designed to fit specific dishware (cups, plates, saucers, etc.) and a motor-spun wheel that squirted soapy water up onto the dishes. Following the patent US355139A, Cochrane opened her first dishwasher factory, Garis-Cochrane in 1897. Cochrane continued to sell dishwashers personally until her death in 1913. By the 1950s the dishwasher was a staple in modern homes. In 1916, Garis-Cochrane was acquired by Hobart, a company that has since changed its name to Whirlpool Corporation.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was a pioneering figure in the field of computer science, who played a pivotal role in the development of programming languages and the advancement of computer technology. Her work not only laid the foundation for modern computing, but also helped to make it more accessible and user-friendly. Hopper's contribution to the development of COBOL programming language was particularly significant. COBOL, which stands for Common Business Oriented Language, was designed to be easy to learn and use, making it accessible to non-technical users. She famously coined the term "debugging" after finding a moth trapped in one of the early computers she was working on. This term is still used today to refer to the process of fixing errors in software. After more than 60 years since its creation, it has been estimated that COBOL is still used in 80% of financial transactions, and thousands of patents are still published each year mentioning “COBOL”.

Stephanie Kwolek (1923 -2014) spent most of her career working for DuPont. In 1964, she was part of a team charged with developing a lightweight, yet strong fibre that could be used in tires. The idea was to lighten vehicles in anticipation of an oncoming gasoline shortage. While conducting experiments, Kwolek stumbled onto a new fibre created from polyphenylene terephthalate and polybenzamide. The result of her work was a polymer stronger than nylon and also five times stronger than steel by weight. Chemists call it poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, but it is better known by its household name – Kevlar. Kwolek's Kevlar material debuted in 1971 and has become a staple in a variety of products. Her patent US3819587A was issued in 1974. A variety of (patented) products are made of Kevlar: tires, cables, sports apparel and tools, car frames, etc.

... and Merpel:
Happy IWD!

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), probably best-known for her career as a Hollywood actress, spent a great deal of her spare time tinkering and inventing in her home workshop. With World War II in full swing, Lamarr looked for a way that she could contribute to the war effort. With the help of composer George Antheil, she designed and patented a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology for use with radio-controlled torpedoes. Lamarr and Antheil realized that using radio waves made the torpedo signals easy to jam. Creating a system that would continually change the radio signals sent to the torpedo would fix that. Their system worked similarly to a piano roll to change the radio signal, and Lamarr and Antheil were granted patent US2292387A “Secret communication system” in 1942. The U.S. Navy didn't immediately take notice – preferring not to accept inventions from civilians. It wasn't until 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that Lamarr's invention got a fair look. It turned out that she may have been far ahead of her time. Her spread spectrum system became integral to developing security wireless communications and has become a key design element in cellular, WiFi, Bluetooth communications, radar, GPS and more.

While working at the Columbia Paper Bag company, Margaret Knight (1838-1914) saw opportunities for improvement of the production line of paper bags. Instead of folding every paper bag by hand - the inefficient and error-prone task she was charged with - Knight wondered if she might instead be able to make them cleanly and rapidly via an automated mechanism. She began to experiment with a machine that could feed, cut, and fold the paper automatically and, most importantly, form the squared bottom of the bag, which is definitely more practical and useful than the cumbersome paper cones in which groceries were formerly carried, leading to a new era of shopping and transport convenience. Despite being entangled in a legal battle, she eventually managed to get the patent US116842A, “Bag Machine” and, later, patent US220925A, “Paper-Bag Machine”, an improved version of the Paper-Bag machine. In the 60s, plastic bags, also known as the “T-shirt plastic bag” from patent US3180557A – the inventor was a man! -, became the standard. In the 80s plastic bags almost completely replaced paper bags which were used mainly in fashion shops or for high-end goods. But these plastic bags contributed enormously to pollution and by the early 2000s, governments across the world were placing restrictions on plastic bags. After more than 100 years, the Square-bottom Paper Bag received a new life in an attempt to save the life of the planet!

Yvonne Brill (1924-2013) invented a new rocket engine, the hydrazine resistojet. This spacecraft propulsion concept, patented in 1974 as US3807658A, allowed both orbit insertion and orbital station-keeping using the same fuel. The resistojet was a game-changing concept that was remarkable for its simplicity in using a single propellant, and because it reduced weight requirements, payloads could be increased and mission life extended. The resistojet system was developed and first applied to an RCA spacecraft in 1983. The concept became a standard in the satellite industry and resistojet have been used on Geosynchronous, Low-Earth-Orbit, and Micro spacecraft.

Well, after this small glimpse into female inventorship, we have just proved to Homer that women can invent and that they are indeed “as smart as men” … if not smarter…! Their inventions, sometimes very high-tech, have fundamentally changed our lives and are still in use many years after their introduction. Having found out about all these inventions, we feel that should really say “Thanks” on this International Women’s Day!

[Guest post] “Say Thanks to a Woman”: How patents can help you (IWD special) [Guest post] “Say Thanks to a Woman”: How patents can help you (IWD special) Reviewed by Eleonora Rosati on Wednesday, March 08, 2023 Rating: 5


  1. Good article, but rather "anglo-centered".. One famous female inventer is Melitta Bentz, who invented the coffee filter, being a housewife at that time. She then founded her own company "Melitta" which still exists today. Her husband gave up his job to promote her inventions as a salesman and also her two sons were her employees.

  2. And if i may add: Don't forget BIONTechs Özlem Türeci and Katalin Kariko


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