We're bombarded by so much impressive new technology that it's easy to forget that many of the simple items we use every day were once considered breakthroughs. It's probably not surprising that women had a hand in creating many of these ubiquitous items, from rolling pins to rotary engines.
As part of women's history month, we examine some of the most commonly used feats of female ingenuity. Although the times in which these ideas were conceived prevented many of the inventors from reaping the full benefits of their genius, the tools and products we rely on today may not have been possible without their pioneering work.
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The bra is a staple in women's attire today, but in 1914 it must have been a welcome change from the hard whalebone corsets women were accustomed to wearing. It was Mary Phelps Jacob, a New York socialite and publisher/writer, who patented the form-fitting invention and it seemed like a breakthrough - soon, all her friends wanted one too.
But whether Jacob didn't enjoy running the business, or failed to market her product adequately, she decided to sell the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company. Mary Phelps Jacob died in 1970, and biographer Anne Conover quoted her as saying "I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it."
Warner earned more than $15 million selling similar models over the next 30 years. (These wacky inventions didn't look like the money machines they became for their creators. Find out more in Ridiculous Ideas That Made People Millions.)
If there's any invention that's become indispensable to our lives, it's the computer. You can credit Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron, for getting the ball rolling on this technology.
Although Lovelace was not allowed to attend university, this didn't stop her from using her mathematical gift to create what is considered the first computer program. In working with mathematician Charles Babbage to translate an Italian mathematician's memoir on a proposed machine, Lovelace conceived of an algorithm that could be processed by a machine, the first step in computer programming.
Lovelace was not recognized for her achievement until 1953, when her notes were republished. The United States Department of Defense later credited her by naming its computer language "Ada." Her image is also found on Microsoft's product authenticity hologram stickers.
When Josephine Chochran ordered her servants aside and began washing her own dishes, she had a revelation: washing dishes was true drudgery. This realization is what led Cochran to invent the first hand-turned dishwasher that used water pressure for cleaning. She succeeded in creating a working model, and patented it in 1886. The dishwasher eventually included a motor, and the larger model could clean 240 dishes in two minutes; as a result, it became popular with hotels and restaurants.
After Cochran's death in 1913, the company continued to manufacture dishwashers and, through several acquisitions, eventually came to be known under the KitchenAid brand. (Bounty hunters, repo men, body guards - many of these strange jobs are on the rise, so find out more about job requirements and pay. Learn more in 6 Unusual Ways To Make A Living.)
"Superfluous" and "impractical" are two words virtually no new parent would associate with disposable diapers, but when mother and inventor Marion Donovan brought her prototype for such an invention to large manufacturers in 1951, this was precisely the response she got.
How wrong they were: disposable diapers now account for 80% of the diapers used in the U.S. and, according to Global Industry Analysts, disposable baby diapers will be a $25.2 billion industry by 2012. It was not until a decade later that another entrepreneur used Donovan's idea to create the Pampers brand.
If there's any pursuit that requires efficiency, raising young children certainly qualifies - particularly if you have 12 of them, as Lillian Moller Gilbreth did over a span of 17 years. Her best-known inventions include time and energy-saving devices such as foot-pedal garbage cans and shelves for refrigerator doors. She also worked with GE to develop standardized heights for counters, stoves and other kitchen fixtures.
But her profound interest in and study of efficiency had even deeper ramifications in workplace efficiency, and the principles of modern business methods she developed pave the way for more efficient work environments, and methods for keeping workers happy and motivated, including standardization, incentive plans and job simplification.
The Paper Bag
Prior to 1873, paper bag factories churned out hundreds of bags, but these early models were much like envelopes, and they were impractical for carrying things. As a worker in a paper bag factory, Margaret Knight overcame this problem by inventing the first flat-bottomed paper bag, along with the machine that folded and glued the paper in the way that many shoppers would still recognize today.
Knight was also one of the first women to ever hold a U.S. patent, but the paper bag patent wouldn't be her last; she went on to patent 87 other inventions, including a numbering machine, window frame and sash and several inventions related to a rotary engine. (Innovation is the key to staying on top. Find out how companies protect their ideas and how to figure out how much they're worth in Patents Are Assets, So Learn How To Value Them.)
Bette Nesmith, an American typist and commercial artist, discovered something she couldn't live without: liquid paper. She used it secretly to correct mistakes she and coworkers made on the job, but eventually started her own company and began selling the product as "Liquid Paper." The company was sold to the Gillette Corporation in 1979 for $47.5 million.
The Bottom Line
According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, about 10% of U.S. patents awarded annually go to women. This number has grown significantly since the 1970s, when it hovered at less than 3%. However small the numbers, women inventors have pioneered some of the most pervasive tools, and the persistence of these items in everyday life stands as a testament to their inventors' ingenious foresight. (To read about some wacky inventions, see Ridiculous Ideas That Made People Millions.)