Celebrating the Women Who Have Driven Auto Innovation

hedy lamarr portrait

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Of the women in history who became famous for their inventions, Hedy Lamarr (pictured above) may be one of the most recognizable. But most people probably know her as one of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s and ’40s, not because of her work that helped make Bluetooth and GPS possible.

As the U.S. Department of Transportation notes on its website, the invention of the car “gave women ample opportunity for invention.” In 1920, a federal agency known as the Women’s Bureau was established to represent the “needs of wage-earning women in the public policy process.” Three years later, roughly half of the 345 inventions listed under “Transportation” in the bureau’s bulletin were related to autos, including traffic signals, turn indicators, a carburetor, a clutch mechanism, and an electric engine starter.

But today only about 12 percent of the inductees in the Inventors Hall of Fame are women. Established in 1973, the hall did not induct a woman until 1991. Of the 45 female inductees, only three are listed for their car-related inventions with a fourth being inducted this year; in all, 18 people have been inducted in this field.

Early female inventors “are stunningly unusual people,” historian Virginia Scharff said. “The barriers to the field would have been huge. . . . To be recognized as an inventor, you have to have legitimated yourself in ways that would have been really daunting for women,” added Scharff, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico whose book Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age looks at how the gendering of culture affected the design and adoption of automobiles.

Because of those roadblocks, when thinking about female inventors and their work, the focus should be on “the actual stories of what challenges women faced,” said Joyce Bedi, a senior historian at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. And further, she said, we need to look at “what problems they were motivated to tackle, how they found their place in industries like automobile manufacturing.” What women faced, Bedi wrote in an email, is perhaps the most important part of understanding and appreciating the creativity of women inventors.

For Women’s History Month, a look at some of the women whose inventions changed and improved cars and transportation.

Margaret A. Wilcox

One of the earliest known patents granted to a woman went to engineer Margaret A. Wilcox in 1893 for her car heater. Wilcox designed a system to channel heat from an automobile’s engine to warm the cab of the car.

Mary Anderson

Credited with inventing the windshield wiper, Mary Anderson, who was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011, secured a patent for her device in 1903, before cars even had windshields. Legend has it that Anderson came up with the idea during a winter visit to New York City, where a trolley driver had to get out of the streetcar to clean snow off the windshield or drive with their head out the window.

Fifteen years later, Charlotte Bridgwood received a patent for her windshield wiper design. But there is no indication that the industry adopted Bridgwood’s invention, said Roger White, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History[WR3] . The windshield wiper wasn’t adapted for cars until 1922, when Cadillac began installing it as standard equipment. It’s believed that neither Bridgwood nor Anderson ever made any money from their inventions.

Helen Blair Bartlett

During the 1930s, while working for AC Spark Plug, a division of General Motors, Helen Blair Bartlett invented insulation for the spark plug. Bartlett was a geologist by training, and her knowledge of petrology and mineralogy is cited as critical to the design of the spark plug insulation device as well as other inventions.

Florence Lawrence

“There were many experimental turn signals for cars before Buick introduced them as standard equipment in 1939,” the Smithsonian’s White said. Florence Lawrence, one of the first movie stars (and Bridgewood’s daughter), developed one of those early signals. Lawrence never patented her invention, and White said it’s unclear historically which experimental turn signal was “first.”

Hedy Lamarr

Best remembered for her acting career, Lamarr is known in invention circles as the “mother of Wi-Fi.” Her frequency-hopping technology, patented in 1941, paved the way for Bluetooth and GPS. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation hailed Lamarr’s invention as a “key component of wireless data systems,” and her patented concept of frequency hopping is now the foundation of wireless networking systems and cellphones. She was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Edith Flanigen

Edith Flanigen began working with “molecular sieves” in 1956. They are still used today to convert crude oil into gasoline, remove water from automobile air conditioners (and from refrigerant lines in refrigerators), produce oxygen for portable medical units, and clean nuclear waste. Flanigen, who worked for 42 years at Union Carbide, was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, the same year she was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.

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Margaret Wu

Margaret Wu‘s inventions help car engines run better. A scientist who spent her career with ExxonMobil, she is credited with revolutionizing the field of synthetic lubricants. Specifically, Wu’s work changed how lubricants such as motor oil are structured; her discoveries improved energy efficiency and reduced waste oil. Wu’s inventions are also used in wind turbines and other industrial machines. She retired in 2009 and holds more than 100 U.S. patents. She’ll be inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame later this year.

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