From pulleys and levers to automated assembly lines to 3D printers, inventions have always played a critical role in driving the manufacturing industry forward. While many people are most familiar with male inventors such as Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Alexander Graham Bell, female inventors throughout history have also made great strides in bringing the industrial sphere into the future.
In honor of National Inventors’ Day, celebrated every year on February 11, we’re exploring the lives and histories of four women who rose above societal limitations to transform not only the world of industry, but the world at large.
1. “Lady Edison,” Prolific Patenter
Margaret Knight was one of the most prolific inventors America has ever known. Born in Maine in 1838, she created her first invention when she was only 12 years old; upon witnessing a terrible accident at the textile mill in which she worked, Knight was inspired to invent a safety device for the textile loom that would halt the machine if something was caught in it.
As one of the first women in the U.S. to be awarded a patent, Knight would go on to receive 87 patents for her many, varied inventions, which include flat-bottomed bags, a numbering machine, a compound rotary engine, and an automatic tool for boring. Because of the many patents she garnered throughout her lifetime, Knight is often referred to as “Lady Edison.”
2. Enchantress of Numbers
Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Baroness Annabella Wentworth, was raised by her mother after her father left them shortly after Lovelace was born. Resentful of Byron’s departure, and concerned that her daughter would inherit his madness if left unchecked, Annabella encouraged Ada’s interest in mathematics from an early age.
Eventually, she would befriend Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor. Together, they worked to create a design for Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer. Even though the machine didn’t actually exist, Lovelace saw its great potential and how it could be used outside of simple calculations. She developed an algorithm that, years later, would be recognized as the first published computer program.
3. Movie Star by Day, Inventor by Night
Hedy Lamarr will probably always be primarily known for her career as a sultry movie actress. However, it’s her pioneering contributions to the field of wireless communications that sets her apart from other Hollywood stars.
During her spare time, Lamarr took on a variety of interesting projects. Together with friend George Antheil, she co-developed a device that could produce indecipherable frequency-hopping signals for secret military communication applications. This was intended for use during World War II, but the device wouldn’t be used until the Cuban Missile Crisis two decades later.
Military applications aside, this spread-spectrum technology would eventually become the backbone of wireless communications, serving as a predecessor for major developments such as Wi-Fi and mobile phones.
4. The Mother of the Internet
As a child growing up in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Radia Perlman exhibited an aptitude for math and science at an early age. However, it wasn’t until high school that she took a programming class that made her think working with computers could be a viable career option. Perlman eventually enrolled as an undergrad at MIT, where she would become a skilled software programmer and network engineer.
While working for a company called Digital Equipment Corp. in the 1980s, Perlman was tasked with developing a way to reliably transmit data between computers. In 1985, Perlman invented the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP). Not only would this prove useful for the company, it would also end up playing a huge role in the formulation of the basic design, structure, and rules of the internet.
Without these women’s brilliant inventions, the world of manufacturing and technology would look very different. And today, young female thinkers and tinkerers across the globe can be inspired to follow in their footsteps.
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