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Women’s Role in Innovation: A Silent Journey Through History

By: Silvana López

April 26, 2023

Did you know that the technology that allows the connectivity of the phone you are holding while reading this article is based on a woman’s invention? Actress from the 20th century, Hedy Lamarr, co-developed a frequency-hopping system used during World War II to block the interception of torpedo signals. That technology, which allowed long-distance wireless communication, is still used nowadays for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Also, if you have a security system installed at your place, you might as well know that a woman named Marie Van Brittan Brown came up with it. She invented the first home security system in 1966, which integrated devices such as a camera, a monitor that projected the captured image, and a remote-controlled lock.

Back in history, one of the earliest records of a woman inventor was Hypatia of Alexandria in the 4th century. A mathematician and astronomer, she invented the hydrometer, a device that allows the measuring of the density of liquids, such as gasoline, alcohol, and kerosene. Later in time, more precisely in 1809, Mary Dixon Kies broke the pattern (as women could not legally own property in some states in the US at the time) and owned the first recorded patent in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The patent, which consisted of a method of weaving straw with silk, constituted the base for making beautiful fashion-like hats. The cool part was that no one except her was allowed to sell hats just like hers at a time when women seldom earned a living on their own.

As if these previous inventions are not striking enough, you might want to know that Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer (1840s). An English mathematician and writer, Ms. Lovelace was the first to recognize that a particular type of machine could achieve applications beyond pure calculations and developed the first algorithm to be executed by such a machine. She gave her name to the Ada programming language.

African American women also contributed significantly to technological advancement. For example, highly respected in telecommunications, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, a physicist, was the first African American woman to obtain a Ph. D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Jackson used her extensive knowledge in the field to achieve a highly impactful breakthrough that later derived in the development of the portable fax machine, touch-tone telephone, caller ID, and call waiting (sounds familiar, right?).

Nevertheless, despite these defining inventions for humanity as we know it, women are still highly unrecognized and underrepresented as inventors. According to data provided by the USPTO, the percentage of women enlisted as investors is merely 12%. This is why celebrations like Women in IP are so important. They allow us to break the barriers and pave the wave for younger generations of women to come and continue making history through their inventions.

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