If it didn’t exist, they invented it!

Think of a famous inventor and names like Alexander Graham Bell, August and Louis Lumière or the Wright brothers spring to mind. Yet we use inventions by women scientists every single day. Here are five that deserve to be household names.

Stephanie Kwolek: Kevlar

Like thousands of others, officer Daniel Kowalski of Cincinnati’s police force owes his life to Stephanie Kwolek. Shot at by a murder suspect, the two rounds fired bounced off his Kevlar-made helmet. Kwolek had invented Kevlar, a plastic fiber five times stronger than steel, five decades earlier. Working on an ultra-resistant fiber for tires, the DuPont chemist created this uber-lightweight yet super-resistant liquid fiber. In her own words:

I never in a thousand years expected that little liquid crystal to develop into what it did. 

As well as ballistics and stabbing-proof body vests for the police and military, today Kevlar is used to make everything from firefighting outfits to surfboards.

Josephine Cochran: The dish-washer

75% of households in the Western world use a dishwasher thanks to the invention of Josephine Cochran. When the socialite’s servants chipped her best china, she undertook the task herself and soon tired of the monotony of dish-washing duties. As she famously said:

If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I'll do it myself.

Her machine consisted of a copper boiler fitted with wire compartments fit to dish size, with soapy water spraying onto dishes. Unveiled at the 1893 World Fair, the washer was a hit with hotels and restaurants, but it would take until the Fifties for the appliance to become the household staple it is today.

Mary Anderson: Windshield wipers

In the early 1900s, Mary Anderson noticed her streetcar driver having to open multiple panes on the windscreen to be able to drive in the rain. The real estate developer and rancher conceived a cleaning rubber blade to remove rain, sleet or snow from the windscreen by operating a handle from within the vehicle. The wiper could also be removed when not needed “leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance 'of the car during fair weather.” Though patented in 1903, Anderson’s invention was largely ignored until windscreen wipers became a standard feature on cars in 1916.

Katharine Burr Blodgett: Non-reflective glass

Glasses-wearers can see better thanks to Katharine Burr Blodgett. Aged 20, Blodgett had become the first woman scientist in the research department at General Electric. Working with the physicist Irving Langmuir, Blodgett discovered that dipping a plate in water containing oil repeatedly formed different molecular layers on its surface. In 1938 her discovery resulted in the invention of non-reflecting so-called "invisible" glass. The coated glass lets 99% of light through and became the prototype for coatings used today on everything from camera lenses to optical devices to computer screens. Blodgett later worked on inventions for battlefield smokescreens and de-icers for airplane wings. She was the first woman to achieve a Ph.D. in physics from England's Cambridge University.

Margaret Knight: The folded paper bag

Shopping wouldn’t be the same without Margaret Knight’s flat-bottomed paper bags. Working at a paper bag factory, Knight devised a machine to cut and glue paper bags. When a machinist, Charles Anan, copied and patented her idea, Knight took him to court - and won, becoming one of the first women to be granted a patent. The inventor, who by the age of 12 had conceived a system to improve safety in textile mills, went on to create everything from a sewing machine reel to a skirt protector, and was still, "at the age of seventy, working twenty hours a day on her 89th invention," according to the New York Times in 1913.

Do you know other important inventions created by women scientists? Let us know at @4womeninscience. 

For Women in Science

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