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Women's History Month

Prolific Female Inventors of the Industrial Era

The most prolific women inventors of the early industrial era in the U.S. are sometimes known by the complimentary, if patronizing, title of "Lady Edisons."

Margaret Knight of Boston (1838-1914) is credited with about 90 inventions and 22 patents. Her patents covered textile and shoe-making machinery, domestic devices, and even a "sleeve-valve" automobile engine. Knight's greatest success, however, was the first machine to make the square-bottomed paper bags that are still used in grocery stores today (patents 1870-79). Others had been trying to develop such a machine for years, since the envelope-shaped bags then used were narrow and flimsy.

Helen Augusta Blanchard of Portland, Maine (1840-1922) earned at least 28 patents. Many were for improvements to sewing machines, including the first zigzag stitch machine. One of her machines (1873) is on display today in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. Blanchard also patented related items, such as hat-sewing machines and surgical needles.

Beulah Louise Henry of Memphis, Tennessee (b. 1887) was dubbed "Lady Edison" in the 1930s. She earned 49 patents, but her inventions number around 110. Her first patent was for a vacuum ice cream freezer (1912). Later, Henry invented an umbrella with a set of different-colored snap-on cloth covers (1924). She also invented—literally overnight—the first bobbinless sewing machine (1940). For businesses, Henry invented the "Protograph," which made four typewritten copies of documents at a time without carbon paper (1932), and "Continuously-attached Envelopes" for mass mailings (1952). For children, Henry invented "Dolly Dips," soap-containing sponges (1929), and the "Miss Illusion" doll, whose eyes could change color and close as if in sleep (1935).

"Mary S." of St. Louis, Missouri (c. 1851-1880) led a life of genius and poverty. Lacking finances and confidence, she sold the rights to her inventions (most of them mechanical) to various male agents, for as little as $5 each. These agents received 53 patents, and a great deal of wealth. Mary S. herself died a pauper at around age 30. Her lack of recognition and financial return led Charlotte Smith, our only source for Mary S., to crusade for the publication of an official List of Women Patentees (1888-95).

The case of Mary S. proves that the battle against sexism was not yet won. But the inventions of these women confirmed in person what the Centennial Exhibition had declared in principle: women inventors were a force to be reckoned with in modern America.

For more information on these inventors, see p. 341-59 of Mothers and Daughters of Invention, by Autumn Stanley.

[March 1997]

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