1. Paper Bags
America got a brand new paper bag when cotton mill worker Margaret Knight invented a machine to make them with a flat square bottom in 1868.
Lightweight, high-tensile Kevlar—five times stronger than steel—will take a bullet for you. DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek accidentally invented it while trying to perfect a lighter fiber for car tires and earned a patent in 1966.
3. Foot Pedal Trash Cans
Lillian Gilbreth improved existing inventions with small, but ingenious, tweaks. In the early 1900s, she designed the shelves inside refrigerator doors, made the can opener easier to use, and tidied up cleaning with a foot pedal trash can.
Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord’s Game to spread the economic theory of Georgism—teaching players about the unfairness of land-grabbing, the disadvantages of renting, and the need for a single land value tax on owners. Magie patented the board game in 1904 and self-published it in 1906. Nearly 30 years later, a man named Charles Darrow rejiggered the board design and message and sold it to Parker Brothers as Monopoly.
5. Windshield Wipers
Drivers were skeptical when Mary Anderson invented the first manual windshield wipers in 1903. They thought it was safer to drive with rain and snow obscuring the road than to pull a lever to clear it.
6. Waterproof Diapers
Marion Donovan didn’t take all the mess out of diaper changing when she patented the waterproof Boater in 1951. But she changed parenting—and well, babies—forever. The waterproof diaper cover, originally made with a shower curtain, was first sold at Saks Fifth Avenue.
7. Spray-On Skin
Spray-on skin is a patented skin culturing treatment for burns victims, developed by scientist Marie Stoner and plastic surgeon Dr Fiona Wood of Perth. Wood’s treatment is under ongoing development.
8. The Dishwasher
Patented in 1886, the first dishwasher combined high water pressure, a wheel, a boiler, and a wire rack like the ones still used for dish drying. Inventor Josephine Cochrane never used it herself, but it made life easier for her servants.
9. Liquid Paper
In the days before the delete key, secretary Bette Nesmith Graham secretly used white tempera paint to cover up her typing errors. She spent years perfecting the formula in her kitchen before patenting Liquid Paper in 1958. Gillette bought her company in 1979 for $47.5 million. And that’s no typo.
10. Chocolate Chip Cookies
Ruth Wakefield had worked as a dietitian and food lecturer before buying an old toll house outside of Boston with her husband. Wakefield was baking up a batch of Butter Drop Do cookies for her guests. The recipe called for melted chocolate, but Wakefield had run out of baker’s chocolate. She took a Nestle chocolate bar, crumbled it into pieces and threw it into her batter, expecting the chocolate pieces to melt during baking. Instead, the chocolate held its shape, and the chocolate chip cookie was born.
11. The Compiler and COBOL Computer Language
Admiral Hopper joined the military in 1943 and was stationed at Harvard University, where she worked on IBM’s Harvard Mark I computer, the first large-scale computer in the United States. She was the third person to program this computer, and she wrote a manual of operations that lit the path for those that followed her. In the 1950s, Admiral Hopper invented the compiler, which translates English commands into computer code. This device meant that programmers could create code more easily and with fewer errors. Hopper’s second compiler, the Flow-Matic, was used to program UNIVAC I and II, which were the first computers available commercially. Admiral Hopper also oversaw the development of the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), one of the first computer programming languages.
Long-distance romantic relationships are often troubled, but Rachel Fuller Brown and Elizabeth Lee Hazen proved that long-distance professional relationships can yield productive results. Both Brown and Hazen worked for the New York State Department of Health in the 1940s, but Hazen was stationed in New York City and Brown was in Albany. Despite the miles, Brown and Hazen collaborated on the first successful fungus-fighting drug.
13. Alphabet Blocks
Children don’t read books by anti-suffrage author Adeline D.T. Whitney these days—and that’s probably for the better. But the wooden blocks she patented in 1882 still help them learn their ABC’s.
14. The Apgar Score
Life is a series of tests, starting with the Apgar, named after obstetrical anesthesiologist Dr. Virginia Apgar. In 1952, she began testing newborns one minute and five minutes after birth to determine if they needed immediate care. About 10 years later, the medical community made a backronym—an acronym designed to fit an existing word—to remember the criteria scored: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration.
15. Signal Flares
Communication between ships was once limited to colored flags, lanterns, and screaming things like “Thar she blows!” really loudly. Martha Coston didn’t come up with the idea for signal flares all by herself. She found plans in a notebook that belonged to her late husband. The determined widow spent 10 years working with chemists and pyrotechnics experts to make the idea a reality. But she was only named administratrix in the 1859 patent—Mr. Coston got credited as the inventor.
16. Circular Saws
A weaver named Tabitha Babbitt was the first to suggest that lumber workers use a circular saw instead of the two-man pit saw that only cut when pulled forward. She made a prototype and attached it to her spinning wheel in 1813. Babbitt’s Shaker community didn’t approve of filing a patent, but they took full advantage of the invention.
17. Folding Cabinet Bed
Sarah E. Goode’s folding cabinet bed didn’t just maximize space in small homes. In 1885, it made her the first African-American woman with a U.S. patent. The fully-functional desk could be used by day and then folded down for a good night’s sleep. The Murphy bed came along some 15 years later.
18. The Solar House
Biophysicist Maria Telkes’s place was in the house—the very first 100 percent solar house. In 1947, the Hungarian scientist invented the thermoelectric power generator to provide heat for Dover House, a wedge-shaped structure she conceived with architect Eleanor Raymond. Telkes used Glauber’s salt, the sodium salt of sulfuric acid, to store heat in preparation of sunless days. Dover House survived nearly three Massachusetts winters before the system failed.
In 1952, 3M chemist Patsy Sherm was perplexed when some fluorochemical rubber spilled on a lab assistant’s shoe and wouldn’t come off. Without changing the color of the shoe, the stain repelled water, oil, and other liquids. Sherman and her co-inventor Samuel Smith called it Scotchguard.
20. Invisible Glass
Katharine Blodgett, General Electric’s first female scientist, discovered a way to transfer thin monomolecular coatings to glass and metals in 1935. The result: glass that eliminated glare and distortion. It clearly revolutionized cameras, microscopes, eyeglasses, and more.
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