There’s an old saying that goes, “The rooster crows, but the hen delivers,” and it’s an apt metaphor for the world of invention.
Most of us have little difficulty listing male inventors, but rattling off a list of female innovators is decidedly more difficult. It’s not because women don’t innovate, but because historically they haven’t had the opportunities or visibility that their male counterparts have had. In fact, when Forbes released its 2020 list of 100 Most Innovative People in Business there was only one woman on that list.
So even today, there has been an enormous cultural reporting bias in favor of male inventors, despite the countless female innovators involved in some of the biggest technological advances in history.
Fortunately, the internet (partly made possible by Radia Perlman’s Spanning Tree Protocol technology) means that female innovators don’t have to continue foregoing the recognition they deserve. Here are five of the top female innovators of all time.
Who are The Top 5 Women Innovators of All Time?
Patricia Bath was the first African American female doctor awarded a patent for medical purposes, and that patent means that people with cataracts can have their sight restored. Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe in 1981 – a device that uses a laser to painlessly dissolve cataracts in the eye, then cleans the eye to facilitate insertion of a replacement lens. The device is now used internationally to prevent blindness due to cataracts, which affect around 25 million people in the U.S. alone.
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867, Marie Sklodowska Curie obtained her degrees in physics and mathematics from the Sorbonne in Paris. Earning her doctorate in 1903, Curie took her late husband Pierre’s place as Professor of General Physics in 1906 – a first for a woman at the Sorbonne. The discovery of radioactivity in 1896 led to Marie Curie’s isolation of radium. During World War I, Curie brought portable x-ray machines to the battlefield, heralding the x-ray as one of modern medicine’s greatest advances.
Thank goodness for Nancy Johnson who (in 1843) changed our world by patenting a design for a hand-operated ice cream maker, which is still the same design that many of us use today. Not all great inventions can stand the test of time, but this one continues to serve us today.
A professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Temple Grandin is one of the world’s foremost experts on both livestock welfare and autism, a condition she has. Feedlot science may not be glamorous, but Grandin’s innovations for calming animals in feedlots are used by beef plants across the U.S. She has published scientific papers on preslaughter stress and meat quality and is widely believed to have done more for livestock welfare than any other individual. She is also an internationally famous spokesperson for autism spectrum disorder.
Katherine Goble Johnson, who is now 100 years old, graduated from West Virginia State University at the age of 18, with dual degrees in math education and French. After raising her children, Johnson went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (today’s NASA) in 1953, working on America’s space program from its beginning. Among her accomplishments as a “human computer” were calculations of trajectories for the Lunar Orbiter Program, mapping the moon’s surface before the 1969 moon landing. Johnson stayed with NASA until 1986 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
This female innovator is particularly relevant today as we need to adopt her invention more than ever. Maria Telkes was a Hungarian scientist who not only created the first thermoelectric power generator in 1947, but she also used that technology to create the first fully solar-powered house in her home in Dover, Massachusetts in 1953.
Born in 1923 in Pennsylvania, chemist Stephanie Kwolek began her career with DuPont. Her specialty was fibers capable of performing in extreme conditions, and at one point she discovered a type of polymer that did just that. She supervised spinning this product into fibers with unprecedented strength and stiffness, and one of these innovative fibers became Kevlar. Kevlar has saved countless lives by providing lightweight body armor for police and military, and it’s also used to protect undersea optical fiber and suspend bridges. The modern world without Kevlar would certainly be a different place.
In 1944, one of the first computers (which was five tons and took up an entire room) was designed by Grace Hopper alongside Howard Aiken. Hopper was actually in charge of the “compiler” which took written language and made it into code. She was also the first person to use the term bug or debugging, because she actually had to remove moths from the physical room-sized computer.
Lamarr is often remembered for her sultry screen presence, but she was actually also a gifted mathematician and engineer who aided the World War II effort by creating something (alongside George Antheil Lamarr) called “frequency hopping” which provided the model for what would later become GPS, Bluetooth, and WIFI
And here is the one that most personally impacts my life. We can go back to a time before the internet, before GPS and bluetooth. But I couldn’t travel back in time before the dishwasher. Cochran was an inventor who came up with the idea of a rack of dishes cleaned by pressurized water. This invention was first introduced to hotels, but thank goodness it’s now in our homes, as well!
Female innovators are nothing new, but perhaps they will get more credit for their work as communication technology and cultural norms change.
How innovation is accomplished is changing too, and IdeaScale invites you to download our white paper on innovation and diversity to learn how building diverse teams can also build your innovation competency.