Whenever I talk about having written a book on American women inventors, someone always pipes up, “Well, what did women invent? Anything really important?” Though I console myself that no one seriously questions women’s ability to invent, I can count on one hand those who know the name of even one American woman who actually did. When I explain that I have narrowed my subject to women who actually received patents for their inventions, my audience is further nonplussed. “Is this a very recent development, women getting patents?” asked one. A friend who has practiced patent law for four decades said he has never represented a female inventor. Others ask me to name a few patentees, and I am tempted to roll out the big names, whether their inventions broke important ground or not. A trio of actresses might do: Take Hedy Lamar, whose patent was for a secret wartime communications system; or May Robson, who invented a false leg for stage use; or Lillian Russell, who received a patent for a clever wardrobe trunk that could double as a bureau when she was on tour. Even one of Rudolph Valentino’s wives, Winifred Hudnut Gugliemi—professionally known as Natacha Rambova—had a patent (for a coverlet and doll).
I must admit that before I undertook this project I, too, knew the names of only a few women patent holders, and one of those names was mine. When I extol my invention’s virtues (it enables hand knitters to avoid tangling the colored yarns they use to knit geometric patterns), the eyes of nonknitters glaze over, their eyebrows lift, they sigh—“Oh, well, is that all?”—as if to say “Oh, a woman’s thing!” and I grow defensive. Never mind that knitting is done by men as well as women; what’s wrong with inventing a woman’s thing? Why should it be more significant to invent something less “domestic,” perhaps more “industrial,” perhaps more “masculine”? Inventing is inventing. Put an ingenious person in intimate contact with a problem and he or she will invent a solution—for everything from corralling the baby to damming a river to extracting gold from ore (all women’s inventions).
Without getting into the value of women’s inventions—I leave that to others in my book—there is a common bond among all of us patenting inventors, whether of dams or of knitting devices. We know from personal experience that having a great idea (the “Eureka!” or light-bulb moment) is only the first step in a process that requires considerable hard work, staying power, and determined hanging-on, plus hard cash to invest in patenting costs and—if we get the patent—in manufacturing and marketing. We have suffered through the anxieties of hoping that no one else has already patented the idea we were fully convinced was ours alone. We have had to explain our idea clearly enough so that patent examiners familiar with the state of the art could determine whether our idea really is “new and useful”; we’ve learned to work with the draftsman who illustrates the workings of the device in action. And many of us, myself included, have gone through the experience of working with a patent attorney as well. Like others in the same situation, once I realized that my application would have to conform to Patent Office rules about everything from the phrasing of the description to the weight and color of the paper on which it was submitted, I decided a patent attorney would speed things along.
I eventually got the patent, and I love having my name attached to number 4,548,055. It was, however, no snap getting it there. After being turned down twice, I dispensed with the attorney’s further services, boned up on how to restate my claims, honed my arguments, practiced my presentation, and personally appeared before the examiners to demonstrate and defend my invention. Greatly encouraged by their reception, I asked another attorney to restate my claims. I got the patent that time around, and in return for divulging how my invention works for the information of anyone who cares to look at the particulars, I can sit tight and know that until the year 2002 I alone can sell the device, which has become the core of a modest mail-order business. It’s no wonder that when I read another inventor’s application file, I can read between the lines the anxiety and agony that has prompted her correspondence with Washington.
In this book I write about women patentees rather than women inventors in general, not just because of my personal empathy with patentees but for the practical reason that I can be sure that the woman patentee actually is the inventor. In patenting, she has taken an oath that she alone (or, in cases of co-patenting, in combination with a partner) is responsible for having reduced inspiration to practice, as we say in the trade. By putting her own name on her patent (some even edited patent application forms to read “inventress” rather than “inventor” and substituted “her” and “she” for masculine pronouns), she has enshrined that name on an official United States government list. Even if future historians find no other information on her, having an assigned patent number means that the particulars of her invention can be traced. That number is the key that will unlock her patent case file, complete with descriptions and illustrations of her invention, and often rife with succulent tidbits of correspondence between her and the examiners (for applications before 1918, the only ones so far accessioned by National Archives). Also in the National Archives can be found the records of any negotiations she conducted regarding the transfer or sale of her patent rights, and any statements she or any other party made if she was involved in a patent interference suit.
It was such a patent interference suit, for example, that led me to pursue the events leading to Susan Hibbard’s 1876 patent. Susan’s husband, George, felt no compunction about attesting to “his” new method for processing formerly discarded turkey wing and tail feathers into usable feather dusters, though Susan had actually figured out the process. But when a competitor alleged that he had the idea first and hauled Hibbard before the patent examiners, George confessed that the idea was Susan’s: “My wife suggested the idea. If the one who suggested the splitting of the feathers is the inventor, then I am not the one.” Susan revealed why she let George do it: “I didn’t understand the patent laws—[knew] nothing about them” but volunteered, “I have no particular occupation but I know a lot about feathers; I did the experiments myself. I said take a knife and try to split them.” Susan’s meticulous records of her invention’s trial-and-error phase effectively documented the priority of the Hibbard invention, and Susan won number 177,939 in her own name, leaving the stranded counsel for the plaintiff to snivel, “Mrs. Hibbard’s claim is simply a put-up affair … conceived in dishonesty and fraud.” To no avail; Susan had made her case.
Of course, thousands of women inventors undoubtedly made critical suggestions to relatives and employers—or even employees—that resulted in patents for others, but it is difficult to assign credit without indisputable evidence of their role. Take Eva Landman’s case. The name of Max Landman, her husband, appears on the 1935 patent for what was at the time quite an innovation—an umbrella with a built-in transparent “windshield” to deflect rain and wind while still providing the carrier with a clear view of potential hazards. The idea was definitely Eva’s, but her ingenuity would have gone unrecorded (except, perhaps, in family lore) were it not for a story in a popular magazine of the time, Invention and Finance. It related how Eva darted across the street in a rainstorm, collided with a truck, and spent three months recovering in the hospital. There she incubated her concept of a windowed umbrella and told her husband about it. He took it from there, and the patent is in his name. Mr. Landman was no miscreant bent on robbing his wife of credit; he simply brought her idea to its patentable stage. Still, many partners and spouses would have listed the idea’s originator as co-patentee. He didn’t. So, the woman behind the man got what? Well, Eva got in this book, if that’s any consolation.
Women’s names may not have made it to the patent list for another reason. Many undoubtedly concurred with the opinion of a nineteenth-century patent commissioner that a woman’s name might jeopardize an application’s success. Quoth the commissioner: “If it had been known [that it was] the invention of a woman, it would have been regarded as a failure.” But if a woman shielded the fact of her ingenuity by not demanding official recognition at the time of patenting, she paid the consequence of leaving it to posterity to debate what role she played.
Take Katherine Greene and the cotton gin, for example. Everyone agrees that Greene (widow of one of General Washington’s high-ranking military adjutants) and her manager (and later, husband), Phineas Miller, urged Eli Whitney, the newly hired, Yale-educated, skilled mechanic at her Mulberry Grove plantation, to try to perfect what all planters wanted, a machine to separate seed from cotton. Whitney built a model, but progress ground to a halt when the cotton clogged the wooden teeth instead of slipping between them and passing through the slate of the rollers. There is disagreement about events that followed. Some say that Kitty Greene surveyed the problem and asked, “Why don’t you use wire instead of wooden teeth?” He did. It worked. Others contend that even if Greene did suggest wire (and few concede that much), her suggestion was not really “inventing” and no claim should be made that it was.
Copyright © 2010 by Anne L. Macdonald. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.