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Women in History

Mothers of Invention - The Scientists

By

Grace Murray Hopper

Women in History - Grace Murray Hopper

Courtesy Norfolk Naval Center
Women have made many contributions to advance the fields of science and engineering.

Women in History - Nobel Prize Winner

Katherine Blodgett (1898-1979) was a woman of many firsts. She was the first female scientist hired by General Electric’s Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York (1917) as well as the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Physics from Cambridge University (1926). Blodgett’s research on monomolecular coatings with Nobel Prize winning Dr Irving Langmuir led her to a revolutionary discovery. She discovered a way to apply the coatings layer by layer to glass and metal. The thin films, which naturally reduced glare on reflective surfaces, when layered to a certain thickness, would completely cancel out the reflection from the surface underneath. This resulted in the world’s first 100% transparent or invisible glass. Blodgett’s patented film and process (1938) has been used for many purposes including limiting distortion in eyeglasses, microscopes, telescopes, camera and projector lenses.

Women in History - Programming Computers

Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was one of the first programmers to transform large digital computers from oversized calculators into relatively intelligent machines capable of understanding "human" instructions. Hopper developed a common language with which computers could communicate called Common Business-Oriented Language or COBOL, now the most widely used computer business language in the world. In addition to many other firsts, Hopper was the first woman to graduate from Yale University with a Ph.D. in Mathematics, and in 1985, was the first woman ever to reach the rank of admiral in the US Navy. Hopper’s work was never patented; her contributions were made before computer software technology was even considered a "patentable" field.

Women in History - Invention of Kevlar

Stephanie Louise Kwolek’s research with high performance chemical compounds for the DuPont Company led to the development of a synthetic material called Kevlar which is five times stronger than the same weight of steel. Kevlar, patented by Kwolek in 1966, does not rust nor corrode and is extremely lightweight. Many police officers owe their lives to Stephanie Kwolek, for Kevlar is the material used in bullet proof vests. Other applications of the compound include underwater cables, brake linings, space vehicles, boats, parachutes, skis, and building materials.

Kwolek was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania in 1923. Upon graduating in 1946 from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) with a bachelor’s degree, Kwolek went to work as a chemist at the DuPont Company. She would ultimately obtain 28 patents during her 40-year tenure as a research scientist. In 1995, Kwolek was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Women in History - Inventors & NASA

Valerie Thomas received a patent in 1980 for inventing an illusion transmitter. This futuristic invention extends the idea of television, with its images located flatly behind a screen, to having three dimensional projections appear as though they were right in your living room. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, the illusion transmitter will be as popular as the TV is today.

Thomas worked as a mathematical data analyst for NASA after receiving a degree in physics. She later served as project manager for the development of NASA’s image-processing system on Landsat, the first satellite to send images from outer space. In addition to having worked on several other high-profile NASA projects, Thomas continues to be an outspoken advocate for minority rights.

Barbara Askins, a former teacher and mother, who waited until after her two children entered school to complete her B. S. in chemistry followed by a Master’s degree in the same field, developed a totally new way of processing film. Askins was hired in 1975 by NASA to find a better way to develop astronomical and geological pictures taken by researchers. Until Askins’ discovery, these images, while containing valuable information, were hardly visible. In 1978 Askins patented a method of enhancing the pictures using radioactive materials. The process was so successful that its uses were expanded beyond NASA research to improvements in X-ray technology and in the restoration of old pictures. Barbara Askins was named National Inventor of the Year in 1978.

Ellen Ochoa’s pre-doctoral work at Stanford University in electrical engineering led to the development of an optical system designed to detect imperfections in repeating patterns. This invention, patented in 1987, can be used for quality control in the manufacturing of various intricate parts. Dr. Ochoa later patented an optical system which can be used to robotically manufacture goods or in robotic guiding systems. In all Ellen Ochoa has received three patents, most recently in 1990.

In addition to being an woman inventor, Dr. Ochoa is also a research scientist and astronaut for NASA who has logged hundreds of hours in space.

Women in History - Inventing Geobond

Patricia Billings received a patent in 1997 for a fire resistant building material called Geobond. Billings’ work as a sculpture artist put her on a journey to find or develop a durable additive to prevent her painstaking plaster works from accidentally falling and shattering. After nearly two decades of basement experiments, the result of her efforts was a solution which when added to a mixture of gypsum and concrete, creates an amazingly fire resistant, indestructible plaster. Not only can Geobond add longevity to artistic works of plastic, but also it is steadily being embraced by the construction industry as an almost universal building material. Geobond is made with non-toxic ingredients which makes it the ideal replacement for asbestos.

Currently Geobond is being sold in more than 20 markets worldwide, and Patricia Billings, great grandmother, artist, and woman inventor remains at the helm of her carefully constructed Kansas City-based empire.

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