From life-saving medical technologies to everyday household items, these ten brilliant women broke through barriers and left an indelible mark on history with their inventions
Everything you can see around you was once an invention, but do you ever wonder who the brains behind them were?
Women have made numerous contributions throughout history, their efforts steering the wheel of invention and innovation, leaving an ever-lasting impact on society. From spray-on skin to silk, the foundations of wifi to caller ID, here are ten things you may not know were the brainchildren of women.
1. Wireless transmission technology by Hedy Lamarr
Credit: MGM / Clarence Bull
Whenever someone says, “get you a girl who can do both,” I immediately think of Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood’s Golden Age actress by day, inventor by night. Lamarr spent her time outside of her successful acting career developing a frequency-hopping communication system, pioneering the foundation for modern-day wifi and Bluetooth.
"Meet Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood’s Golden Age actress by day, inventor by night"
Lamarr had worked alongside George Antheil in this project during the Second World War to prevent enemies from intercepting torpedo guidance signals. Unfortunately for Lamarr, her invention of wireless communication was not widely understood during her time but she eventually got the well-deserved recognition posthumously.
2. Silk by Empress Leizu
Though there is no way of validating the account, ancient writings (including Confucius’) attribute the first invention of silk to the Chinese Empress Leizu, who was fourteen at the time and had been enjoying tea in the imperial gardens when a fateful incident took place. A cocoon fell into her teacup and lost its cohesiveness upon contact with the hot water.
When Leizu fished the cocoon out of her teacup, the cocoon began to unravel. The fact that the cocoon was a single strand of silk had captured Leizu’s attention and she wove the thread into fabric, creating silk cloth.
Upon sharing her discovery with the Yellow Emperor, she began observing silkworms in Mulberry trees and eventually taught her attendants how to raise silkworms and harvest the silk.
3. Bone marrow transplant by Ann Tsukamoto
What do you get when you pair the year 1991 with Ann Tsukamoto? You get the invention of bone marrow transplant. While experimenting with ways to treat leukaemia, Tsukamoto and her team discovered that they could use bone marrow to replace diseased blood cells in patients, revolutionising the possible cures and treatments for blood-related diseases.
It is safe to say that Tsukamoto’s invention has saved numerous lives over the past decades and slingshot the medical industry to greater heights. After her breakthrough, Tsukamoto continued working in the field of stem cells, leading the research into other diseases.
4. Caller ID and call waiting by Dr Shirley Ann Jackson
Dr Shirley Ann Jackson truly broke the glass ceiling as the first African-American woman to be awarded a doctorate from MIT when she received a PhD in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics in 1973, but that was not the peak of her achievements.
"Dr Shirley Ann Jackson broke the glass ceiling as the first African-American woman to be awarded a doctorate from MIT"
She contributed to the invention of caller ID and call waiting during her research period at AT&T Bell Laboratories, so we can now see the phone number and name of whoever is ringing our phones, easily avoiding telemarketers if they are catching us at the wrong time. This invention not only improved how we manage calls and communicate with each other but also gave us a sense of security through the ability to recognise callers.
Undoubtedly, Dr Shirley more than deserved the National Medal of Science she received from then-President Obama in 2016, the highest honour attainable for scientific achievements.
5. Spray-on skin by Dr Fiona Wood
Credit: Life@Microsoft Australia
Let’s talk about Australian plastic surgeon Dr Fiona Wood who introduced spray-on skin to the world in the 1990s. This stirred up the way in which burn victims used to be treated, as spray-on skin can be directly applied to wounds to form a new layer of skin that facilitates healing and minimises the risk of infection.
Spray-on skin proved to be a popular game-changer that allowed burns and skin injuries to be treated more effectively and with less pain, and with Dr Wood’s constant improvements over the years, is now widely utilised in hospitals.
6. Stir fry pan by Joyce Chen
Credit: Joyce Chen Foods
Necessity is the mother of invention, and Joyce Chen is the mother of stir fry pans. When her family took the second last boat to leave Shanghai during the communist revolution of China, little did she know about what awaited her ashore.
Chen and her family settled in Massachusetts, where she realised that traditional Chinese woks were not compatible with flat American hobs as the bottom of the woks was spherical. In 1971, Chen submitted a patent for flat-bottom woks she termed “Peking Wok” and it became the commonplace stir fry pan we see today.
Chen popularised North-style Chinese cuisine in her new home, going on to publish her own cookbook and open her own restaurant. Her contributions to the culinary world were well-received, especially by international students who missed food from home.
7. Modern ironing board by Sarah Boone
Would you believe that clothing used to be ironed on wooden planks balanced between chairs? It wasn’t until dressmaker Sarah Boone came along that the modern ironing board was created in 1892, allowing for a seamless smoothing out of fabrics without impressions from wooden boards.
Though it seems like a simple invention, Boone put a lot of thought into it, evident in the end product. Aside from solving the initial problem of uneven ironing, Boone also made the ironing board’s legs collapsible for ease of storage and implemented a curved shape for the body to accommodate sleeves and curved areas. Alongside her invention, Boone also became the first African American woman to receive a patent.
8. Synthetic fibre by Stephanie Kwolek
Credit: Michael Branscom
Cue the 1960s. Enter chemist Stephanie Kwolek. DuPont company, Kwolek’s place of employment, was working on finding a suitable fibre to manufacture car tyres. Amidst the research, Kwolek achieved a breakthrough when she discovered a heat-resistant polymer stronger but lighter than steel.
"Kwolek achieved a breakthrough when she discovered a heat-resistant polymer stronger but lighter than steel"
DuPont then used the polymer to develop the fibre “Kevlar”, patented it, and Kwolek’s discovery became ubiquitous in creating body armour, helmets, racing sails, and so much more. As she went on to further develop Kevlar, Kwolek was eventually inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
9. Home security system by Marie Van Brittan Brown
If you have a home security system installed for peace of mind, you have Marie Van Brittan Brown to thank. Brown had worked as a nurse and often went home alone at late hours. To give herself a sense of security, she worked on the first home security system with Albert Brown, her husband, patenting the invention in 1969.
Brown’s invention laid the groundwork for modern-day CCTV, including camera images and a two-way microphone system. Homeowners could also hit a button that would alert the police in case of emergencies. Needless to say, this invention was ahead of its time and yet another product of necessity, and it ended up being cited in the invention of more appliances after Brown’s.
10. Central heating by Alice Parker
Though she did not directly invent central heating, Alice Parker played a significant role in developing the modern central heating system. Parker’s model employed natural gas to heat a home instead of wood and allowed multiple rooms to be heated concurrently. It also introduced ducts that enabled hot air to circulate through buildings, essentially improving the efficiency of the system.
While her model did not have a widespread impact, Parker was still a woman of colour in a male-dominated field and her contribution deserves to be acknowledged.
Banner credit: Michael Branscom
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter
*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.