Saturday, April 18, 2015

P is for Paper Bag Machine: Inventions by Women A-Z

Margaret E. Knight (1838-1914)
In 1850, Margaret E. Knight of York, Maine was one smart twelve-year-old. She had just made her first invention, a device to stop cotton mill machinery from operating, when thread or something else got stuck.

While visiting a cotton mill where her brothers worked as overseers, she had witnessed an accident. A thread had snagged, causing a shuttle to fly off its spool, and stabbed a young boy. As shocking as it was, accidents with flying shuttles were not uncommon. Eyes were lost and other injuries inflicted. 

Margaret thought it through and came up with a device that worked. It was never patented, but by the time she was a teenager, news had spread and the device was being used in mills elsewhere. It saved workers from who knows how many injuries.
1834 Lowell, Mass. A typical cotton mill in Margaret's time
Margaret liked inventing things and never forgot her first experience. After the Civil War, she found herself working for the Columbia Paper Bag  Company in Massachusetts. It seemed to her a better bag could be made, one that had a flat bottom and could stand up alone, making it easier to pack. She made drawings and designed a model for a machine that glued the bottom together. The machine was patented in 1871, and the new paper bag was a huge success. 
paper bag machine
Margaret's Paper Bag Machine
Unfortunately, a patent was not enough to prove that Margaret was the sole inventor. Charles Annan, who had watched her machine being built, stole her idea and filed a patent in his own name. Outraged, Margaret took him to court, where Annan then argued before the judge that she wasn't capable of creating such a device. Margaret did not back down and proved in court that she did indeed invent, build, and patent the machine. 

Margaret went on to receive over twenty patents for her inventions, among them a rotary engine, shoe-cutting machine, and a dress and skirt shield. When she died, her obituary described her as a "woman Edison." 

Image result for free image of flat bottom sack In 2006 she was inducted into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame. Her paper bag machine is still used today, with over 7000 machines in existence worldwide that continue to make the ever popular flat-bottom bag. Suppliers are in the U.S.A,. Germany, France and Japan. 


Copyright 2015 © Sharon Marie Himsl

Friday, April 17, 2015

O is for Optical Analysis System: Inventions by Women

Ellen Ochoa
Ellen Ochoa (1958-)
Image Credit: NASA

Ever wonder about robotically manufactured products or how a robot is guided during an operation?

While working on her doctorate in electrical engineering, exploring lasers and holograms, Ellen Ochoa co-invented an Optical Analysis System that could detect imperfections in repeating patterns. 

It allowed seeing an image close up within an image. The invention could be used in processes where consistency in patterns and detecting the slightest deviation were critical.

Patented in 1987, this system is used today in quality control operations, for inspection of equipment, and manufacture of intricate parts, via a robot controlled manufacturing process and robot controlled guidance system. The potential civilian, military and medical use has been endless. For example, in space on Mars, finding the right spot with a video camera for the spacecraft to safely land . . . or in surgery (as below). Two more related Optical Analysis Systems were also patented.

Robotic surgery

Ellen Ochoa is mostly revered as the first Hispanic female astronaut to enter space; when she flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. Selected by NASA in 1990, she became the first Hispanic female astronaut in history in 1991. Since then she has flown on four space missions and clocked more than 978 hours in space. Today she is Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Ellen with her crew for the mission STS-110 (NASA)

Early on, Ellen was a star student in California, where she grew up. Graduating at the top of her class in high school, she went on to earn a degree in physics. She had been discouraged from the field of engineering, when told it was not for women, but Ellen had come from a family not unaccustomed to adversity or discrimination. Her grandparents had emigrated from Mexico and often dealt with discrimination against Hispanics, as did her parents. The only way to deal with it was through persistence and education, something highly regarded in her family. Ellen went on to obtain an advanced degree in electrical engineering from Stanford. She is also a classical flutist and private pilot.

Image result for ellen ochoa and robots 
Ellen has received numerous awards over the years. NASA awards: Distinguished Service Medal, Exceptional Service Medal, Outstanding Leadership Medal and four Space Flight Medals. Other awards include the Hispanic Engineer Albert Baez Award for Outstanding technical Contribution to Humanity and Time magazine's Scientist of the Year.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

N is for Nystatin: Inventions by Women A-Z

Elizabeth Hazen (lft) (1885-1975)
Rachel Brown (rt) (1898-1980)
Itchy ears. The problem had plagued me for years it seemed. Fed up with with my family physician's inability to help me, I went to an eye, ear and nose doctor--the kind parents usually take their kids to. The doctor knew exactly what to do. He cleaned my ears and prescribed a fungicide called Nystatin. It took awhile, but slowly the itchiness disappeared. It felt like a miracle.

Fungal infections can be life-threatening to burn victims, organ transplant recipients, AIDS patients, and those undergoing chemotherapy, but less serious infections like athlete's foot, yeast infections, infant oral thrush and the itchy ear problem I had can be chronic. Nystatin is mostly used to treat fungal infections of the skin, mouth, vagina, esophagus, and intestinal tract. But it has also been used for non medical reasons, as in the prevention of mold spreading on valuable works of art. In that regard, you might say Nystatin has saved thousands (maybe millions) of dollars in art restoration. 

In 1950, Elizabeth Lee Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown, while working for the Division of Laboratories and Research (New York State Department of Health) discovered Nystatin. It was the first effective antifungal medicine ever. 

Elizabeth Hazen's journey to becoming a microbiologist was long and arduous. Orphaned at the age of three, the odds were hardly in her favor. Women rarely entered the field of science in the early 1900s. Nevertheless, Elizabeth managed to attend a women's college in Mississippi. Proving herself capable, she earned a degree, and with a diploma in hand, she found a job teaching high school physics and biology. Later, she returned to school to obtain an advanced degree, but was discouraged from continuing by university authorities who thought her southern education was inadequate. Undaunted, Elizabeth forged ahead and earned a Ph.D. in microbiology, proving her background was indeed adequate.  

Rachel Brown's journey was less difficult in Massachusetts. She was the recipient of a high school scholarship early on and had the financial backing of a well-to-do local woman. While in college another woman, who happened to be the chair of the chemistry department, also mentored and greatly encouraged her. Like Elizabeth, Rachel taught school for awhile, then later returned to school where she earned a Ph.D in chemistry. 

Two journeys, as different as night and day, but two women in partnership, destined to discover an amazing drug.

The partnership began in the 1940s, when Elizabeth and Rachel began testing and analyzing hundreds of soil samples from around the world. First, Elizabeth would culture the organisms in the samples and test them against two significant fungi, Candida albicans and Cryptococcus neoformans. If any tested positive, she would mail the sample to Rachel, who then tried to isolate the active agent in the culture. The process was tedious, as it was also important the agent not be toxic to animals.

Finally, after much testing, one soil culture passed all of the tests with flying colors. (Ironically, the soil tested was not from some remote region across the world . . . but from a friend's home garden). 

Elizabeth and Rachel had just discovered the fungicide, Nystatin.


Copyright 2015 © Sharon Marie Himsl

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M is for Monopoly: Inventions by Women A-Z

What was your favorite piece? I liked the shoe.
One of my fondest memories as a girl during the summer was playing Monopoly on a blanket spread out over the lawn on a hot lazy afternoon with a friend. A pitcher of Kool Aid, cups of ice, a bag of Cheetos, some black licorice and a Big Hunk candy bar were all we needed to wile away two hours, sometimes longer.

Those were the days when most Moms only worked part-time or not all. They were happy to get a break from the kids, and Monopoly was safe entertainment. They knew right where to find us, either in the backyard or at the neighbor's when the weather was nice. I got pretty good at this game. Is it any wonder, we grew up fascinated with real estate and property as an investment? 

Charles Darrow often gets credit for inventing Monopoly. During the Great Depression he was introduced by a friend to a board game called "The Landlord's Game," which he and his wife grew to love. His friend even made the couple a personal board. When Darrow asked his friend for the rules, he was told the rules had simply been passed down. The origin of the game had apparently been lost over the years. Unemployed and desperate to support his family, Darrow took a chance. He wrote out the rules, changed the game title to "Monopoly" and filed a patent in 1935 as the game's inventor. He later sold the rights to Parker Brothers, still claiming to be the game's inventor, and it made him a millionaire.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) J. Magie (1866-1948)
Back up thirty years . . .  
Elizabeth (Lizzie) J. Magie of Canton, Illinois was working by day as a stenographer. At night she often taught public classes on progressive politics and her political point of view. Having come from a newspaper family (her father was a publisher, also an abolitionist), she had developed some strong political beliefs early in life. She also wrote poetry, short stories, and performed comedy onstage. She had yet to marry and would not until the age of 44 (to Albert Phillips), and had even purchased her own home and acreage as head of her household.

As an independent woman, Lizzie took her teaching seriously and thought a board game could better illustrate the unfairness of wealth distribution in America. She was tired of the super rich, men like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, monopolizing the country's wealth, while everyone else struggled with income inequality. A patent was approved in 1904 for her new board game, "The Landlord's Game," which was published a year later. The game became the rage on college campuses, among left wing intellectuals, and later among a community of Quakers (Atlantic City) who added names of local neighborhoods to the board.

Original game board from 1904 patent: filed as Lizzie J. Magie

Lizzie's game came with two sets of rules:
  • Version #1: The anti-monopolist - players were rewarded when wealth was created (the morally superior version).
  • Version #2: The monopolist - players could create a monopoly and crush their opponents (the morally corrupt version). 

Despite Lizzie's best intentions, the Monopolist version was the most popular of the two, and the one that Darrow took credit for in 1935. Lizzie fought back, claiming she was the inventor. The 1935 version had become even more popular, but Lizzie only made $500 in the end. Parker Brothers paid her off, absent any royalties. The Washington Press wrote, ". . . if one counts the lawyers’, printers’ and Patent Office fees used up in developing it, the game has cost her more than she made from it.”

It was not until 1973, when Ralph Anspach took Parker Brothers to court, concerning his own Anti-Monopoly game, that Lizzie's game became part of a lawsuit. The case lasted for ten years and was finally won, proving Lizzie's role in the game's creation. Unfortunately, Hasbro (a subsidiary of Parker Brothers) still acknowledges Darrow as the game's inventor.

It could be said Lizzie did so much more in her life that her contribution to the board game industry is perhaps 'small potatoes' in comparison. In the late 1800s, with many Americans worried about making a fair wage, the anti-monopoly movement was definitely growing, as was the call for women's rights. Lizzie used whatever creative means she could to express her political outrage . . . including, a robust sense of humor. As an unmarried woman, and seeing marriage as the only viable option women had to support themselves, she placed an advertisement in the newspaper, offering herself up for sale as a "young woman American slave" to the highest bidder. It created quite a stir in the gossip column, and she later made a statement to reporters, taking full advantage of the moment: "We are not machines," Lizzie said. "Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambition."

For more information about Elizabeth (Lizzie) J. Magie, you might be interested in Mary Pilon's new book, The Monopolists.


Copyright 2015 © Sharon Marie Himsl

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

L is for Life Raft: Inventions by Women A-Z

Actors on a life raft - "Primitive Lover" 1922
Maria Beasley (1847-1904?) of Philadelphia (PA) wanted a better life raft, one that was "fire-proof, compact, safe, and readily-launched" when needed. According to the patent, she invented a new design in 1880.

Maria's life raft sported guard railings and rectangular metal floats, unlike typical rafts with hollow tube floats and zero safety railings. By changing the style of the floats, Maria's raft actually folded and unfolded more easily for use and storage, even with the added guard rails. It is not clear from the patent how she made the raft fire proof or why that was important. Life rafts were made of wood and metal in the 1800s, but it seems logical water itself would have been a huge deterrent to fire.
A typical life raft in 1874
(patent) Maria's life raft in 1880 had guard railings
Not much is known about Maria's personal life. From a census in 1880, she was reported as an unemployed housewife, but later, it is clear from other records she had become a successful inventor and business woman. At the Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans in 1884, we know that she displayed some of her inventions, including an improved version of her life raft patented in 1882 

Maria actually made money from her inventions (15 to be exact). Some of her other inventions were:
  • foot warmer
  • steam generator
  • anti-derailment device for trains
  • wooden barrel-making machine
 Her wooden barrel-making machine (for wine-making and food preservation) is said to have made Maria a fortune. She earned close to $20,000 a year, while most working women in her day earned about $3 a day!

A Biographical Dictionary of People in Engineering: From the Earliest ... By Carl W. Hall
Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology By Autumn Stanley

Copyright 2015 © Sharon Marie Himsl

Monday, April 13, 2015

K is for Kevlar: Inventions by Women A-Z

Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014)
Stephanie Kwolek wanted to be a medical doctor someday. After attending college and becoming a chemist, she accepted a temporary position at DuPont as a research scientist, hoping to save enough for medical school. Instead, DuPont offered her a permanent position and a promotion she couldn't turn down, changing the course of her life.

Stephanie later said, "I think one of the reasons I've stayed so long is that back in 1946, women were only able to work in the laboratories for a few years, then they'd get pushed into so called women's jobs. I had something to prove and also the work was very interesting." 

We can be thankful Stephanie made a career at DuPont and had something to prove. In 1965, while studying long molecules at low temperature, in her search for a lightweight plastic that could be used in car tires (to possibly reduce gas mileage), she discovered a substance that was lightweight and incredibly strong. The discovery led to the invention of a synthetic material called Kevlar, which when tested, was 5 times stronger than steel out of water and 20 times stronger under water. It was also heat and corrosion resistant.  
Aramid fiber2.jpg
Kevlar® is a liquid, which is then 
converted into fiber that can be 
woven into a textile material. 

Since 1965, Kevlar has been used to strengthen and improve close to 200 products. Here are some examples:
  • skis
  • safety helmets
  • hiking and camping gear
  • suspension bridge cables
  • bulletproof vests (invaluable to law enforcement officers, police dogs, and soldiers in the field)
  • clothing (Kevlar is resistant to wear and corrosion)
  • fiber optic cables
  • firefighter suits (Kevlar is flame resistant)
  • fuel hoses
  • airplane parts
  • tires (radial; and racing car tires)
  • spacecraft parts
  • canoes
  • tennis racquets
  • rope 

Image result for free image of kevlar bulletproof

Kevlar has made the world a whole lot safer by adding incredible strength (without added weight) to many, many products. Countless lives have been saved as a result of this invention.

Commenting on her discovery, Stephanie Kwolek said, “I don’t think there’s anything like saving someone’s life to bring you satisfaction and happiness.” She has received numerous awards for her research, including induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, an honor shared with other great inventors, among them, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, and Lewis Pasteur.  


Copyright 2015 © Sharon Marie Himsl