A modern necessity? More recognition for mothers of invention

September 25, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

The telephone. The light bulb. The automobile.

Quick. Name the inventors. Of course you can.

How about flat-bottomed paper bags, bullet-proof vests and Scotchgard? The dishwasher, the fire escape, AZT?

Of course you can't.

Why? Because these inventors are women, says historian Anne L. Macdonald. That's why they're hard to find in history books.

Or in any books.

"For a long time, it was thought women were only creative biologically," says Ms. Macdonald. "While we know that's not true, there is no question that when it comes to inventions, women have been horribly ignored."

Hedy Lamarr was ignored. You know, the inventor Hedy Lamarr. Famous for appearing nude in the 1933 movie "Ecstasy" and for saying, "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." Lamarr was also highly mechanical, one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets.

In 1940, Lamarr invented a sophisticated, and unique, anti-jamming device to foil Nazi radar. As Hedwig Keisler Markey, the actress patented the device with partner George Antheil, a film score composer, and offered it to the War Department.

She was stunned when her offer was declined. But she was not surprised years later when her patent expired and Sylvania adapted the invention. Today, the device speeds satellite communications around the world.

While Lamarr, now retired in Florida, has said she was happy to make a contribution, she would have been even happier with a little recognition.

"Never a letter, never a thank you, never money," Lamarr recently complained to a Forbes magazine reporter. "I guess they just take and forget about a person."

Not all are forgotten, of course. Dr. Gertrude Elion, for example, won a Nobel Prize in 1988 for developing drugs to fight herpes, cancer and other diseases.

Since 1937 when she was refused a laboratory job because she was "too cute" and threatened to distract the other workers, Ms. Elion has patented 45 of her discoveries. But the less cute Thomas Edison still holds the record with 1,093 patents.

That men dominate the world of invention -- and most certainly of patented inventions -- cannot be disputed. Among the more than 5 million patents issued in the United States since 1790, the mothers of invention are barely represented.

And while numbers are improving, they are not improving very much or very fast. It has taken a century and a half for women's share of patents to rise from 1 percent to 6 percent. And that's not good, says author Macdonald, herself a patent-holder.

"I believe things should be moving along faster than they are, but after my own experience, I certainly understand why they are not," says Ms. Macdonald, who spent three years and $6,000 to patent her Argyle knitting device, which keeps yarns separate.

But it would be a mistake to think that the tiny number of patents in women's names means that women haven't been ingenious or that they haven't been inventing.

Research by both Fred Amram, curator of a 1990 exhibit at the Patent and Trademark Office, and Ms. Macdonald reveals that plenty of women inventors never received credit for their work, including two who had a hand in Colonial America's most famous inventions.

It was Catherine Greene, according to some 19th century accounts, who helped her farm mechanic, Eli Whitney, build the first cotton gin. And it was an early design by Ann Harned Manning that led to the creation of Cyrus McCormick's famous reaper.

Although Manning probably invented the mower on which the reaper was modeled, it was her husband who held the patent. Married women had no property rights until the turn of the century. And "ladies" were not encouraged to own up to their mechanical talents.

Rather than admit to such unlady- like leanings, writes Ms. Macdonald, it was not unusual for women in the 1800s to claim to be under the influence of spirits when defending their inventiveness.

Amanda Theodosia Jones, for example, told the world her idea for vacuum canning, the genesis of an entire food industry, came not from any personal cleverness but from her brother's ghost instructing her from the grave.

"How many women's inventions are hidden under the name of fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, we cannot, of course, know," lamented Charlotte Smith, founder of the National Women's Industrial League in 1890 and the first to try to tally the number of women patent-holders.

Smith found that women inventors gave up patents -- and profits -- for many reasons. Ellen F. Eglin, who invented the clothes wringer and sold the patent rights for $18, told Smith's Woman Inventor newspaper why:

"You know I am black, and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer." Eglin's invention made a lot of money, but not for her.

Black hairstylist Margorite Joyner was more fortunate. Her 1928 invention of a Permanent Wave Machine -- which straightened black women's hair and curled white women's hair -- made her wealthy, even though she gave her employer the patent.

Inventive (read: desperate) mothers have been responsible for designs to ease their child-care load -- from the first baby-jumper, invented by Jane Wells in 1872, to the disposable diaper, patented by Marion Donovan in 1951. Ann Moore invented the Snugli child carrier after a West African tour with the Peace Corps and then went on to patent a personal carrier for portable oxygen supplies.

Certainly, the stories of modern women and their inventions XTC don't all have happy endings.

Ruth Siems, the General Foods home economist who invented Stove Top Stuffing, got a plaque and a $125 bonus. But it didn't help her keep her job of 33 years when the company was taken over by Philip Morris, according to author Macdonald.

Still, Ms. Siems had the last word. In 1984, when the 1 billionth package of stuffing rolled off the assembly line and no one invited her to the celebration, Ms. Siems found her response in the message on the back of the commemorative T-shirt: "Stuff It."

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