By Shana R. Spindler, PhD
Imagine: it's late at night, darkness has settled, and you've just finished your tasks for the day. You leave your office and start the long journey to your car. Soft footsteps echo in the cool air, and the dim light casts eerie shadows across long stretches of pavement. As reality sets in that you're alone in a murky sea of unknown noises, you quicken your pace. The sight of your car brings a rush of relief as you jab your key toward the lock, only to miss, creating a sense of panic as more footsteps resonate in the distance. But wait! In 1940, Charlotte Cramer Sachs (1905-2002) invented and patented the combination key and flashlight, which you handily use to open your door!
The combined key and flashlight was only the first of many patents for the wealthy and intellectual Sachs. Among Sachs's other inventions were the first line of instant foods, called "Joy Products," and a series of pet accessories, including the first retractable dog leash—the "lead-o-matic." By 1966, Sachs was inventing the first modern wine cellar alongside countless other creative endeavors. A history of Sachs's inventions can be found in a collection at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History (NMAH), where Patricia Edwards, Education Specialist for The Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, frequently discusses the NMAH collection from women inventors and innovators.
During her private lecture for the Association for Women in Science DC Chapter, Edwards exclaimed that most people recall Edison, Bell, Ford, and Franklin as important inventors. She was quick to point out that all of these individuals are deceased white men. Edwards articulated that she wanted people to see a broader world of inventors and inventions. Therefore, Edwards focused her seminar on the collections of women inventors housed at the NMAH. In addition to Charlotte Cramer Sachs, Edwards described the important roles of three more women: Marion O'Brien Donovan, Louisan Mamer, and Sharon Rogone.
Marion O'Brien Donovan (1917-1998), born only twelve years apart from Sachs, worked at Vogue magazine as a writer. Her 1940 personal record—now known as a resume—described her experience writing Christmas plays and working at her school newspaper, a far cry from today's resume requisites. Her lack of upper-echelon work experience, however, did not hamper her inventive creativity, and in 1951 Donovan designed a waterproof diaper wrap, lovingly called "The Boater." With a prototype made from shower curtains, she sold her invention for over a million dollars. Like Sachs, Donovan's inventions ran the gamut from a new type of clothes hanger to a novel style of dental floss—one of her most lucrative efforts!
While Sachs and Donovan were securing a myriad of patents, Louisan Mamer (1910-2006) was becoming a great innovator of her time. She was tasked with the responsibility to educate Americans about electricity. Mamer created "farm shows" in which she convinced rural communities across the country about the benefits of the new technology. By using tools such as cookbooks with recipes requiring electricity, she alone educated around one million Americans. After a long and innovative career, she retired in Washington DC in 1981.
After describing three significant women inventors from the past, Edwards stressed that there are contemporary inventors among us. For example, Sharon Rogone (1942- ), a neonatal intensive care unit nurse, simply wanted to help premature babies thrive. While caring for the newborns, Rogone invented a phototherapy mask using common materials found in the hospital. In partnership with a medical salesman, Rogone started her own company, Small Beginnings, where she continued to invent, and help other inventors, develop products for premature babies.
Edwards capped her lecture with a few more bright minds: Amy Smith, winner of the Lemelson MIT student prize for inventing the hammerless grain mill, Patsy Sherman, the inventor of Scotchgard, Patricia Bath, an ophthalmologist who developed the first fiber optic laser procedure for cataract removal, and Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar.
The take-away message from this event: anyone can be an inventor or innovator. While the collection of inventions by women at the NMAH is still small (five in nearly one hundred collections!), it is clear that men and women alike have equal potential to significantly better our lives through invention and innovation. It is certain that the five collections will grow to countless more over the coming years.
Adapted with permission from "Patricia Edwards presents 'Behind Every Invention, There's a Story.'" By Shana R. Spindler, for the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), DC Chapter, August, 2010.
AWIS National is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, and AWIS DC Chapter is celebrating its 30th anniversary! For more information on the Association for Women in Science, please visit their website at www.awis.org.