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Incomparable Women in Innovation
What do the song “The Way You Look Tonight,” fire escapes, and life rafts all have in common? They were all created by women, whose ceiling-shattering innovations have shaped life as we know it. Despite obstacles, women’s discoveries and contributions have continually expanded the notion of what was thought possible throughout history – their ingenuity has aided in the wake of war, in classrooms, workplaces, and in a countless number of households. In recognition of International Women’s History Month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Center is highlighting some of the impactful women innovators from history whose discoveries have paved the way for their proteges of today.
Grace Murray Hopper’s legacy probably lies in your hands or sits on your desk. A pioneer in modern computing, Hopper was born in New York City in 1906, graduated from Vassar College in 1928, and went on to study mathematics at Yale where she was one of only four women at the time to earn her PhD. After her service in World War II, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard’s Cruft Laboratory where she worked on the Mark I Computer. The Mark computers sparked her curiosity; her work on them made her one of the four original “coders” – the first computer programmers – through which she coined the terms “bug” and “debugging” after having to remove moths from the device. Hopper would then contribute to the creation of the UNIVAC, the first commercial computer, as well as the first compiler, or English computer language, as opposed to machine code.
Beulah Louise Henry’s inventions span a wide range – she’s credited for 110 different inventions and held 49 patents in her lifetime. Often referred to as “Lady Edison,” Beulah Louise Henry was a non-stop tinkerer – she attempted to take apart and improve anything that didn’t function to her high standards. Her first notable invention was a vacuum ice cream freezer, which she created in 1912. She would go on to create an umbrella with detachable covers that coordinated with the user’s outfit, the rights to which eventually sold for $50,000 in 1924 – approximately $629,280 today! Its success lead her to found two companies, the Henry Umbrella and Parasol Company and the B.L. Henry Company of New York. Some of her other noteworthy inventions include multiple advanced sewing machines, children’s toys, and a typewriter attachment for duplicating documents. In 2006, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
Born to a successful comedian turned Broadway actor, musicality and entertainment were in Dorothy Fields’s make-up. Her father, half of the comedy duo Weber & Fields, cautioned Dorothy and her older brothers against pursuing careers in theater. All three promptly rejected this advice and found individual successes in entertainment. Dorothy had a knack for writing at an early age – her poems were frequently published in her high school’s literary magazine. Post schooling, although met with discouragement from her father, Dorothy eventually jump-started her career as a lyricist at Mills Music, Inc., where she teamed up with Jimmy McHugh. The duo wrote songs like “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “Dinner at Eight” for the movie musicals Love in the Rough and Every Night at Eight. Post their partnership, Fields found herself amongst the stars in Hollywood, where she teamed up with Jermon Kern to write music for Swing Time, featuring the well-known tune, “The Way You Look Tonight.” During her 48-year career, Fields co-wrote more than 400 songs, worked on 15 musicals, 26 movies and collaborated with the likes Duke Ellington, Oscar Hammerstein, and Neil Simon.
Are you in the 64 percent of Americans who drink at least one cup of coffee every day? If you’re brewing a pot at home in the morning or buying a drip coffee from the shop on the corner, you can thank Melitta Bentz. Known today as the Melitta filer, you may recognize her invention as the widely known pour-over coffee filter. Born in Dresden, Germany in 1873, Melitta was familiar with many coffee brewing methods, each of which she took issue with. Espresso machines left grounds in the coffee, percolators burnt it, and linen bag filters were a hassle to clean. A strike of ingenuity lead her to steal a blotting paper from her son’s school book, which she placed atop a punctured brass pot. Putting the coffee grounds on top of the blotting paper, she poured the boiling water through the grounds – what resulted was a less bitter, grounds-free cup of coffee. Melitta went on to secure a patent from Germany’s patent office, and made her commercial debut at the Leipzig Trade Fair where she sold 1,200 filters.
Grace, Beulah, Dorothy, and Melitta are inspirations to countless females who have since followed in their footsteps. They are an encouraging reminder of what can be accomplished when hard work and perseverance pay off. According to the USPTO, the number of women inventors has increased year on year over the past several decades. On International Women’s Day and always, let’s celebrate the many amazing women who continue to make history with their innovative contributions to society.
Sophia Robichaux is the Associate Communications Manager of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center.