The world tends to have a pretty singular interpretation of a mother: a woman who raises and cares for her child.
This Mother’s Day, though, we’d like to challenge that definition and propose a new category of mothers: the mothers of invention.
Every day, we champion the inventors, innovators, game changers and entrepreneurs in Philadelphia. Mother’s Day is no different, so we thought we’d honor Pennsylvania’s Mothers of Invention: the best and baddest female inventors whose “children” changed the world.
Creator of the synthetic material Poly-Paraphenylene Terephthalamide, commonly known as Kevlar, Stephanie Kwolek’s life-saving achievement in materials science earned her worldwide recognition and praise. Although she originally aspired to be a medical doctor, Kwolek began working at DuPont in 1949, reportedly due to a shortage in male scientists during WWII. Kwolek perfected her creation within nine years and went on to win 14 awards, including the National Medal of Technology, the Perkin Medal and induction into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
She also penned The Nylon Rope Trick, an essay outlining a process for making nylon in a beaker at room temperature, which earned her an award from the American Chemical Society and remains a standardized classroom chemistry experiment. The Royal Society of Chemistry created the Stephanie L. Kwolek Award for outstanding chemists residing outside of the UK, and Kwolek will be honored at the University City Science Center’s Innovator’s Walk of Fame as their science honoree this spring.
As the first female PhD recipient from the University of Cambridge Physics department, Katharine Blodgett was promptly hired by General Electric as their very first female research scientist. Much of her research focused on the creation of monomolecular films, which are coatings for metal, glass and polymers that are only one molecule thick, on the surface of water.
Using an apparatus later named the Langmuir-Blodgett Trough, Blodgett repeatedly applied 44 gossamer films to the surface of plate glass, reducing the reflectivity and effectively creating what is now known as invisible glass. The layers of film, called Langmuir-Blodgett Film, cancel out light reflections on glass and were immediately applied to everything from military cameras and periscopes to theater projectors that screened Gone With the Wind in 1939.
Not only an inventor, Maria Beasley made a space for herself in the history books as a revolutionary entrepreneur, businesswoman and engineer. Her first invention, a “fire-proof, compact, safe, and readily-launched” life raft, was a literal lifesaver. By changing the design of traditional rafts, Beasley’s invention was much simpler to unfold and launch, and her patented design brought her national recognition.
Beasley acquired 15 patents over her lifetime, including a steam generator and a foot warmer, but the invention that put her on the map as a serious businesswoman was her barrel-making apparatus for wine and food preparation. Her invention and subsequent business is said to have made her a fortune—an estimated $20,000 per year in a time when most women were lucky to earn $3.00 per day!
As the first recorded female inventor in United States history, Sybilla Masters holds a special place in history. She came to New Jersey as a colonist in 1692, then married and moved to Philadelphia with her husband. Like most colonial women, Masters worked to prepare meals, which often included grinding corn into meal by hand.
In an effort to streamline the pounding-by-hand nonsense, Masters created a mill that pounded corn with the use of hammers as opposed to traditional millstones. At the time of her invention, the concept of patents was a very new idea, and Philadelphia did not yet offer the service. Determined, Masters traveled to England and received patents for her invention in 1716, which were published in Philadelphia upon her return the same year.
Who will make up the next generation’s mothers of invention in Pennsylvania? We can’t wait to find out.
Can’t get enough of these Mothers of Invention? Take a look at some of the world’s most innovative women—from Chicago, Colorado, Tennessee and Connecticut—and how they launched our country even further into the future. Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.