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Dishwashers, computers & WiFi: 6 pioneering inventions by women

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What do chocolate chip cookies, computer software, Monopoly and dishwashers have in common? They were all invented by women.

These common products, which many take for granted and few know the origins of, were all pioneered by women. It is important to understand the history behind these products, as the incredible women behind them faced considerable criticism and social censure based simply on their gender.

Computer Software – Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper, or ‘Amazing Grace’ as she was known, was a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy and its oldest serving officer.

Credited for pioneering computer programming, one of her achievements was her collaboration in developing one of the first modern programming languages, COBOL. She also invented the compiler that translated instructions into computer codes. After removing a moth from her machine’s hardware, she coined the terms “bugs” and “debugging” to refer to computer glitches.

Ironically, she was awarded the ‘Computer Science Man of the Year Award’ - and was in fact the first recipient of this award. As well as this, a college at Yale University was named in her honour and she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2016. 

Hopper serves as an inspiration for contemporary women interested in pursuing computer science, and leaves behind a rich legacy. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is just one example of this. A convention honouring Hopper’s encouragement for women to enter and excel in computer science and technology fields, the annual event highlights research and professional opportunities for women.

Image credit: Illuvis via Pixabay

Chocolate Chip Cookies – Ruth Wakefield

Widely considered the world's most popular biscuit, chocolate chip cookies were invented by Ruth Wakefield around 1938. Proprietor of the Toll House Inn in Lancaster, Wakefield’s famous desserts attracted visitors from far and wide, including future President John F Kennedy.

Whilst experimenting with different flavours and recipes for cookies, Wakefield added chunks of a Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate bar into her cookie mix. The resultant creation was named the ‘Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie’ and was soon popular across the nation.

Wakefield sold her recipe to Nestlé so they could print it on the packaging of their semi-sweet chocolate bars, and in exchange received a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Monopoly – Elizabeth Magie

Initially named ‘The Landlord’s Game,’ Monopoly was created by Elizabeth Magie to educate people about the dangers of monopolies and capitalism whilst promoting the economic principles of Georgism. Magie, who patented the game twice, sold the game to toy and game manufacturers Parker Brothers for $500 in 1935.

Around the same time, the Parker Brothers had bought a version of the game called ‘Monopoly’ from Charles Darrow and within a year, were producing 20,000 sets per week. Monopoly was the best-selling board game in America, making Darrow a millionaire and replacing Magie’s version.

Throughout history, Darrow was credited for pioneering Monopoly. Magie’s role was not revealed until the 1970s, when Ralph Anspach researched the history of the game and came across her patents.

Image credit: ErikaWittlieb via Pixabay

Dishwashers – Josephine Cochrane

Frustrated with her servants chipping her precious heirloom china and wanting to reduce the workload of tired housewives, Josephine Cochrane was motivated to invent a dishwasher.

Allegedly having exclaimed: “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I'll do it myself,” Cochrane, with the help of mechanic George Butters, did just that. Her machine, which was the first to use water pressure instead of scrubbers to clean dishes, was made in a shed behind her house.

Having won the highest prize at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Cochrane began receiving orders from friends, restaurants and hotels. The Garis-Cochrane Manufacturing Company was founded in 1897 to meet the demand. In 2006, Cochrane was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Wireless transmission technology – Hedy Lamarr

You’re probably reading this article on a device connected to WiFi. That is all thanks to the works of Hedy Lamarr. Hollywood starlet Lamarr worked with composer and pianist George Antheil on frequency-hopping systems and spread spectrum technology to help the Allies’ war effort during the Second World War.

Although the US Navy did not accept their invention at the time, it was later implemented in Navy ships around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. Their research was instrumental in the later development of Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi. They were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 and received multiple awards for their contributions to the scientific and technological communities.

Disposable Nappies – Marion Donovan                    

Tired of the mess produced by cloth nappies, Marion Donovan cut and sewed pieces of her shower curtain, thus creating the first waterproof nappy cover, which was the precursor to disposable nappies. Named the “Boater,” this nappy cover not only avoided the soiling and wetting of clothes and sheets, but it also prevented nappy rashes. The cover was also attached via snaps, instead of safety pins, which were more comfortable and safe for children.

Donovan sold her patents for $1 million (the equivalent of $9.5m in 2018). She was granted 20 patents between 1951 and 1996 for various inventions, many of which were intended to improve women’s ease of life - from dental flossing products and closet organisers to facial tissue boxes and hosiery clamps.

Later, she also studied architecture at Yale University, where she was only one of three women graduating that course. In 2015, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her development of disposable nappies.

Lead image credit: ErikaWittlieb via Pixabay




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