In the immortal words of Beyoncé, women are “smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business.” However, history hasn’t always documented or supported women’s accomplishments in the same way that it has its male innovators.
For instance, American laws once made it illegal for a woman to own property. So, imagine how many women inventors may have applied for a U.S. patent under their husband’s name? Keeping that perspective in mind, it makes sense that women account for half of all doctoral degrees in science and engineering, but make up only 10 percent of U.S. patent holders. This is due, in part, to greater obstacles for women patent applicants, including the fact that women are more likely to be rejected and are sometimes required to submit a more detailed description for inventions than men are — which in turns weakens the protection of the patent.
Naturally, the community of women of color patent holders is even smaller. With that said, we at REVOLT wanted to present this list of 21 incredible, overachieving women of various ethnicities who have shattered glass ceilings in STEM.
1. Shirley Jackson’s fiber-optic cables
As the first African American woman to graduate with a doctorate in particle physics, Dr. Shirley Jackson’s inventions are the foundation for a lot of modern technology. She started her career at Bell Telephones, helping to invent developments like touch-tone dialing and call-waiting. Most impressively, Dr. Jackson also invented fiber-optic cables, an assembly that links communication systems around the world.
2. Marie Van Brittan Brown’s home video security system
Black women protect everyone. Marie Van Brittan Brown, a nurse from Jamaica, Queens New York, was the literal example of that fact. Because of her late schedule, coupled with the odd hours of her electronics technician husband Albert Brown, she wanted to develop a way to see who was at her door when she was home alone. Together, the two invented the video home security system in 1966. The couple’s patent was granted in 1969.
3. Valerie Thomas’ and the 3D movie
In 1980, NASA physicist Valerie Thomas invented the illusion transmitter, a device that uses concave mirrors to project multidimensional images onto a screen display. The technology would lend way to modern day 3D movies and is a device that NASA still uses today. The revolutionist is 79 years old and enjoying retirement in Baltimore.
4. Sarah E. Goode’s fold-out bed
If you’ve ever stayed at a relative’s house or squeezed into a South Beach hotel room, you’ve probably been grateful for Sarah E. Goode’s invention. Born into slavery, Goode became the second Black woman to receive a U.S. patent with her invention of the fold-out bed. She and her carpenter husband Archibald opened a furniture store in Chicago upon being granted freedom at the end of the Civil War. The Goodes were able to help their neighbors who were living in smaller apartments and didn’t have much space for big furniture by developing “cabinet beds” — or the “Murphy Bed,” as it’s known today.
5. Rea Huntley’s contactless locker system
In 2019, computer electronics and engineering aficionado Rea Huntley came up with the idea to improve the restaurant pick-up process after she stood in line for 20 minutes to grab an order that was already waiting at the register. It just so happens that Huntley and her co-founders, James Bagley and Marcus Gunn, had actually created a viable solution for contactless order pickup during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. Their Lavii, Inc. Smart Food Lockers helped struggling restaurants across the country increase sales while protecting customers with minimal interaction. Huntley’s patent was published last year (Feb. 18, 2021).
6. Ann Tsukamoto’s stem cell isolation
Dr. Ann Tsukamoto is celebrated for her research and 12 patents that have furthered the understanding of the circulatory systems of cancer patients. Her inventions, such as stem cell isolation, inch us closer to a cure than we’ve ever been. Dr. Tsukamoto has a Ph.D in immunology and macrobiology.
7. Lyda D. Newman’s hair brush with synthetic bristles
As only the third Black woman to receive a patent, Lyda D. Newman revolutionized Black hair care with the synthetic bristle brush. In the 1890s most brushes were made from animal hairs, which were too soft to manipulate coarser hair and not as easy to clean between clients in a hair salon. Newman’s effort paved the way for two other inventors: Madam C.J. Walker and Marjorie Joyner.
8. Flossie Wong-Staal’s HIV test and molecular knife
Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal found her love for science while attending primary school in Hong Kong. She was the first woman in her family to ever work outside of the home, but her parents were very supportive of her educational pursuits. Wong-Staal is heralded for her post-doctoral breakthrough work with Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute, where she began her research into retroviruses. In only two years she became the first researcher to clone HIV and completed genetic mapping of the virus. This work made it possible to develop HIV tests.
9. Alice H. Parker’s central heating system with natural gas
Depending on where you are in the country, it may still be cold outside. That heating system you’re using is predicated on the patent of inventor Alice H. Parker. Parker was born in New Jersey but later attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. — both cold cities in the winter. She wanted to develop a way to heat an entire home more efficiently than a wood-burning fireplace. Her 1919 patent became the precursor for the central HVAC systems modern buildings use today.
10. Janet Rita Emerson Bashen’s LinkLine software
Alongside her computer scientist cousin, Janet Rita Emerson Bashen developed software that could securely store information about her Equal Employment Opportunity cases. This database, called LinkLine, not only helped her sort and retrieve information internally, but it also used the internet to make the information about each case available to employers and employees at multiple worksites. She is the first African American woman in the United States to hold a software patent.
11. Bessie Blount Griffin’s feeding tube
After World War II, Bessie Blount Griffin was working as a physical therapist with soldiers returning as amputees. She found that among their trials with mobility, eating was particularly challenging. To help improve these soldier’s self-esteem and independence, Griffin developed an electric self-feeding tube that releases a small portion of food when the patient bites down. A part of the device was patented in 1948.
12. Patricia E. Bath’s cataract treatment
Patricia E. Bath is honored for her breakthroughs in ophthalmology. Bath holds five patents in the field and became the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent after she invented a more precise treatment for cataracts in 1988. She patented the Laserphaco Probe, which dissolves cataracts with a laser, making the experience a less painful cataract treatment to restore patients’ eyesight.
13. Sarah Boone’s ironing board
Sarah Boone was a dressmaker who sought to improve the ironing process of form-fitting styles that were typical of the early 1890s. Designers were originally pressing their garments on a wooden plank across two chairs. The ironing board, on the other hand, features a narrow end perfect for slipping into sleeves to keep the garment in place, padding to prevent impressions from the wood, and collapsable legs for easy storage. Born to slaves, Boone earned her freedom when she got married and fled to Connecticut. In her 40s, she taught herself to read and write at church, which is how she was able to apply for the 1892 patent.
14. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner’s ‘Sanitary Belt’
Born into a long line of inventors, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner had the unique opportunity to walk the halls of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a child. In her 40s, she’d go on to patent five inventions, including the toilet paper holder, a mounted back washer and massager, and her first – the Sanitary Belt, a predecessor to menstrual pads. It took Kenner 30 years to get the patent (due to financial difficulty and insufficient support for Black women), but she still made her mark on modern history in spite of the obstacles.
15. Ellen F. Eglin’s clothes wringer for washing machines
If you complain about the laundry process today, imagine how much harder it was drying soaking wet clothes in 1888. Ellen F. Eglin helped to make the chore much more efficient with the invention of the clothes wringer. The device helped to squeeze out excess water from clothing before being hung to dry. Aware of the difficulty for women – even more so for Black women — to get a patent for their inventions, she sold her design to a white agent for only $18. Her invention was popular well into the twentieth century, and it made millions for the American Wringer Company — but not Eglin.
16. Marjorie Joyner’s ‘Permanent Wave Machine’
Marjorie Joyner used her experience in the kitchen to create a beauty invention that changed the game for women’s hair. The Permanent Wave Machine was created and patented by Joyner in 1928 to keep hair curled for days by using rods inside a hooded dryer to set the curls, similar to the pins Joyner used to heat her pot roasts from the inside out. While both Black and white women loved this tool, Madam C.J. Walker’s company saw most of the profits.
17. Miriam Elizabeth Benjamin’s ‘Gong and Signal Chair’
Travel and hospitality were not ready for Miriam Elizabeth Benjamin, the second Black woman to receive a patent for her invention. The school teacher set out to make it easier for patrons to get the attention of attendants in movie theaters, hotels, government and healthcare. Today, we can see systems inspired by Benjamin’s design in the U.S. House of Representatives and on airplanes to signal flight attendants.
18. Judy Woodford Reed’s ‘Dough Kneader and Roller’
Many amazing things happen when a Black woman is in the kitchen. It would be a lot harder to produce Pattie’s Pies without the contributions of inventor Judy Woodford Reed. Reed is documented as the first Black woman to hold a patent for her Dough Kneader and Roller in 1884. The design is an improvement on the wooden pin roller, helping bakers soften and mix ingredients more quickly and efficiently.
19. Tahira Reid Smith’s automated double dutch jump rope machine
Engineer Tahira Reid Smith took it to the blacktop at recess to bring us her invention — the automatic double dutch machine. Her machine uses electric motors to turn the jump ropes in sync, with an infrared beam to monitor the jumpers’ rhythm and speed. Talk about Black Girl Magic!
20. Olga D. González-Sanabria’s ‘Long Cycle-Life Nickel-Hydrogen Battery’
As the highest ranking hispanic person at NASA Glenn Research Center, the technical contributions of Olga D. González-Sanabria helped to enable the International Space Station power system. Her research in energy storage technologies for space helped develop Long Cycle-Life Nickel-Hydrogen Batteries.
21. Seema Prakash’s plant tissue culture
Biodiversity and sustainable agriculture got a kick in the butt in 2003 when Seema Prakash developed a cost-effective method for cloning plants. In an effort to help Indian farmers, Prakash developed Glass Bead Liquid Culture Technology (GBLCT) to help with food production throughout the year. Her method is 98 percent cheaper than standard costs.