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Ten female engineers whose inventions changed the world

Amit Katwala

Ada Lovelace pioneered algorithms on the Analytical Engine
Ada Lovelace pioneered algorithms on the Analytical Engine

Today is International Women in Engineering Day, with a number of events running across the country and worldwide. We’ve highlighted ten women whose discoveries and inventions have changed the world.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was a member of the British aristocracy and the daughter of Lord Byron, but she’s also considered the first computer programmer. She was fascinated by the Difference Engine, a mechanical calculator invented by mathematician Charles Babbage, and when he started work on a more complex Analytical Engine, she became an important collaborator. Decades before the first computers, she worked out how to use the Analytical Engine to perform calculations – the first algorithms.

Stephanie Kwolek

Stephanie Kwolek discovered bulletproof fibre Kevlar by accident in the 1960s, while searching for something lightweight but strong for use in car tires. She was working as a chemist at DuPont factory in Delaware, where she carried out extensive research on polymers. Kevlar was five-times stronger than steel by weight, and is now used for bulletproof vests and mobile phone cases.

Tabitha Babbitt

Tabitha Babbitt lived in a religious Shaker community in Massachusetts in the 19th century, and she was struck by the wasted effort the men expended chopping wood. The tool of choice at the time was a two-man whipsaw, where half the effort of moving the saw back and forth was wasted. She developed a circular saw which could be connected to a water-powered machine to cut lumber.

Mary Anderson

On a chilly New York day in 1902, Mary Anderson was riding a tram car and noticed that the driver kept both panes of the double front window open so he could see through the sleet. Once she’d warmed up, and returned to her home in Alabama, she worked with a designer to develop a hand-operated device to clear the windscreen. It consisted of a lever inside the vehicle connected to a rubber blade outside. She patented her invention in 1903, but few car makers were interested until years later, when they became a standard feature. In 1917 another woman, Charlotte Bridgwood, patented the first automatic windscreen wiper.

Bette Nesmith Graham

The white correction fluid has fallen out of use in recent years – because of the advent of computers, not because we’ve stopped making mistakes, but it was a godsend in the early days of the typewriter. Back then, a mistake meant starting over, as Bette Nesmith Graham knew only too well. She was working as a secretary in a Texas bank, and had her moment of inspiration when watching painters cover their mistakes with an additional coat.

Graham mimicked their technique, and producing and perfecting this ‘liquid paper’ soon became her full time job. By 1967 she was selling a million bottles a year.

Alice Parker

There were systems for distributing heat around the home back in Roman times, but a forgotten African-American woman came up with the system that bears most similarity to modern central heating systems. Almost nothing is known about Alice Parker, bar the patent she was granted in 1919 which describes a technically complex and intricate gas-powered heating system for the home.

Hedy Lamarr

She was a global film star in the 1930s and 40s, but in her spare time Hedy Lamarr developed a technique called ‘frequency hopping’ which allowed the US military to control weapons and other devices remotely, without fear of them being jammed. The same technology forms the basis for all sorts of modern wireless communication, including WiFi.

Josephine Cochrane

In the 1870s, Josephine Cochrane started throwing lavish dinner parties using fine china that had been handed down through her family for a century. After one party, some of the dishes were chipped by a careless servant so she started searching for a safer alternative. The end result was the first commercially successful automatic dishwasher, which was pioneering because it used water pressure rather than manual scrubbers to clean the dishes.

Sarah Guppy

A serial inventor almost on par with Thomas Edison, Guppy is best known for her contributions to bridge-building. Her first patent was for a way of making safe piling for the foundations of bridges, and her work helped support Bristol’s famous Clifton suspension bridge. She was prolific – other patents included methods of keeping ships free of barnacles, a bed with built-in exercise equipment, and a tea and coffee urn that would cook eggs and keep toast warm.

Henrietta Vansittart

The daughter of inventor James Lowe, who’d pioneered screw propellers for steam ships, Vansittart carried on her father’s work after his death. She improved on it, with her propeller being trialled on the HMS Druid in 1869. It was eventually fitted on the ocean liner the Lusitania.

Do you have any suggestions for women in engineering who deserve more recognition? Let us know in the comments below, via email at, or on Twitter @ProfEng


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