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Women in History

Mothers of Invention - First Women to File for American Patents


Women in History

Women in History

Palmer, Alfred T., photographer
Before the 1970's, the topic of women in history was largely missing from general public consciousness. To address this situation, the Education Task Force on the Status of Women initiated a "Women's History Week" celebration in 1978 and chose the week of March 8 to coincide with International Women's Day. In 1987, the National Women's History Project petitioned Congress to expand the celebration to the entire month of March. Since then, the National Women's History Month Resolution has been approved every year with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

Women in History - The First Woman to File an American Patent

In 1809, Mary Dixon Kies received the first U. S. patent issued to a woman. Kies, a Connecticut native, invented a process for weaving straw with silk or thread. First Lady Dolley Madison praised her for boosting the nation's hat industry. Unfortunately, the patent file was destroyed in the great Patent Office fire in 1836.

Until about 1840, only 20 other patents were issued to women. The inventions related to apparel, tools, cook stoves, and fire places.

Women in History - Naval Inventions

In 1845, Sarah Mather received a patent for the invention of a submarine telescope and lamp. This was a remarkable device that permitted sea-going vessels to survey the depths of the ocean.

Martha Coston perfected then patented her deceased husband's idea for a pyrotechnic flare. Coston's husband, a former naval scientist, died leaving behind only a rough sketch in a diary of plans for the flares. Martha developed the idea into an elaborate system of flares called Night Signals that allowed ships to communicate messages nocturnally. The U. S. Navy bought the patent rights to the flares. Coston's flares served as the basis of a system of communication that helped to save lives and to win battles. Martha credited her late husband with the first patent for the flares, but in 1871 she received a patent for an improvement exclusively her own.

Women in History - Paper Bags

Margaret Knight was born in 1838. She received her first patent at the age of 30, but inventing was always part of her life. Margaret or 'Mattie' as she was called in her childhood, made sleds and kites for her brothers while growing up in Maine. When she was just 12 years old, she had an idea for a stop-motion device that could be used in textile mills to shut down machinery, preventing workers from being injured. Knight eventually received some 26 patents. Her machine that made flat-bottomed paper bags is still used to this very day!

Women in History - 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition

The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was a World Fair-like event held to celebrate the amazing progress of the century-old United States of America. The leaders of early feminist and women's suffrage movements had to aggressively lobby for the inclusion of a woman's department in the exposition. After some firm pressing, the Centennial Women's Executive Committee was established, and a separate Woman's Pavilion erected. Scores of women inventors either with patents or with patents pending displayed their inventions. Among them was Mary Potts and her invention Mrs. Potts' Cold Handle Sad Iron patented in 1870.

Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893 also included a Woman's Building. A unique safety elevator invented by multi-patent holder Harriet Tracy and a device for lifting and transporting invalids invented by Sarah Sands were among the many items featured at this event.

Traditionally women's undergarments consisted of brutally tight corsets meant to shape women's waists into unnaturally small forms. Some suggested that the reason women seemed so fragile, expected to faint at anytime, was because their corsets prohibited proper breathing. Enlightened women's groups throughout the nation resoundingly agreed that less restrictive underclothing was in order. Susan Taylor Converse's one-piece flannel Emancipation Suit, patented August 3, 1875, eliminated the need for a suffocating corset and became an immediate success.

A number of women's groups lobbied for Converse to give up the 25-cent royalty she received on each Emancipation Suit sold, an effort that she rejected. Linking the 'emancipation' of women from constrictive undergarments to her own freedom to profit from her intellectual property, Converse responded "With all your zeal for women's rights, how could you even suggest that one woman like myself should give of her head and hand labor without fair compensation?"

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