Mothers of Invention

By Eilene Lyon  –  May 5, 2020

“Necessity is the mother of invention” – a proverb

Why “mother” and not father? I suspect women frequently find themselves in need of a solution to a problem. We tend to be multi-taskers by tradition and that means shortcuts and mechanical aids come in real handy. Plus, we’re plenty intelligent. But women today still lag far behind men in obtaining patents for their designs.

On this date in 1809 Mary Dixon Kies was the first woman to receive a U.S. patent for her brain child, a process for weaving straw hats with silk. Because in the early days of this country women couldn’t own property if they were married, they generally did not seek to patent their inventions. Mary Kies decided to do it anyway.

Even today, many of the women named on patents are part of a mixed-gender team. Only 12% of inventors receiving patents in 2016 were women. In the previous decade, women-only patents made up just 4% of all patents issued. Though women are approaching parity in employment in many science and technology fields, they do not seek patents as often as their male counterparts. There may also be some bias in the patenting process itself, but not enough study has been done to come to any definitive conclusion.

I unofficially declare May 5, 2020 to be Women Inventors Day.

Let’s hope that our society will improve the ways we teach and encourage women so their inventive ideas will come to fruition, making the world a better place. Women deserve to have protection and compensation for their creations, just as men have been receiving since 1790.

Here are just a few women who hold U.S. patents, with links to their Wikipedia pages. You can also find stories about more female inventors at CNN and USAToday.

Bette Nesmith Graham, with her son, Michael Nesmith of Monkees fame. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bette Nesmith Graham. Inventor of Liquid Paper correction fluid, originally patented as “Mistake Out” in 1956. Started her own company to produce the product and eventually sold it to Gillette Corporation.

Maria Beasley’s life raft patent drawing. (Wikimedia Commons)

Maria Beasley. Held 15 U.S. and two U.K. patents. The best known are her barrel-making machine and a life raft.

Gertrude B. Elion. (Wikimedia Commons)

Gertrude B. Elion. A Nobel-winning biochemist and pharmacologist, Elion was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Her work led to the development of the first effective drugs to treat HIV/AIDS.

Marie Van Brittan Brown (

Marie Van Brittan Brown. Co-inventor with her husband of a home security system for which they received a patent in 1969.

Josephine Cochrane. Invented the first commercially successful automatic dishwasher, receiving a patent in 1886.

Feature image: Patent drawing for Lizzie J. Magie’s board game, The Landlord’s Game, which became the model for the game Monopoly. (Wikimedia Commons)


25 thoughts on “Mothers of Invention

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  1. Very interesting! My guess is they said “mother” because mothers give birth and thus Necessity gives birth to inventions. Let’s hope that’s the case with COVID19, and perhaps it will be a woman who develops the vaccine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I like Bette Nesmith Graham’s Liquid Paper, I vote that Josephine Cochrane be made a saint. What a wonderful invention that has made my life much easier. Suppose she’s on the Pope’s radar?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes. I thought about including her. She invented a frequency changing device for radar. It was a bit too complicated to be instituted during WWII, but quite innovative. I think at least one of the two articles I linked to talks about her.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. I am surprised to learn that it was actually a Monkee’s mother that invented liquid paper. Another great woman inventor was the famous actress Hedy Lamar, who invented telecommunications techniques that are used in Bluetooth and Wifi technologies. May 5th sounds like a good day to honor women inventors. It would conflict with Cinco de Mayo; but, who really cares about the Mexican Army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla? Viva Women Inventors Day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Hedy almost made the cut for my piece, but I decided to focus on the lesser-knowns. Still, she was quite an impressive mind. I don’t mind sharing the day with Cinco de Mayo celebrations – the more the merrier!

      Liked by 1 person

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