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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Necessity is not the mother of invention... these women are     By Paul Niemann

[March 22, 2007]  What do windshield wipers, COBOL and Scotchgard® have in common?

All were invented by women. Their stories are below.

In addition, here are a few other important products that were created by female inventors:

  • Bulletproof vests

  • Fire escapes 

  • Laser printers

  • Flat-bottom grocery bags

  • Certain drugs that fight diseases such as childhood leukemia, herpes and gout and the first drug to fight AIDS: AZT

Windshield wipers

Some inventions are created as the result of a person simply trying to solve a problem. That's what Mary Anderson of Alabama did in 1903 when she invented windshield wipers. On a trip to New York City, while touring the city on a streetcar, she noticed that the motorman had to continually get out to wipe the snow and ice from the windshield. The man had tried a variety of solutions to this problem, but nothing had worked.

After making a quick drawing in her sketchbook, Mary came up with a solution to the problem. Her solution, which would be patented a year later, allowed the motorman to

sweep the snow and ice away with a device that was operated from inside the car. This became the forerunner to the modern windshield wiper. Even though wipers had become standard equipment on American cars by 1913, Mary never profited from them.

The USS Hopper

Grace Murray Hopper developed COBOL, which stands for COmmon Business Oriented Language, in 1959 while she was in the Navy, and she was also the Navy's first female admiral. COBOL was more like natural English than any previous computer language. It was also the first programming language mandated by the Department of Defense for its applications. In recognition of the developer's contributions, the Navy named one of their destroyers in her honor, the USS Hopper.

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COBOL served as a foundation for later computer languages, and it's likely that we wouldn't have the World Wide Web today if it weren't for COBOL.

Another contribution that Grace Hopper made was the term "computer bug." No, she didn't invent the bug, but she coined the term. She did this after a computer processor had stopped working due to a moth that was stuck in it.


Patsy Sherman accidentally created Scotchgard in 1952 while working as a chemist for 3M in Minneapolis. Sherman's team had been trying to develop a new kind of rubber for use in aircraft fuel lines when an assistant in her chemistry lab accidentally dropped a beaker full of a liquid rubber mixture onto the floor, splashing onto Sherman's white canvas sneakers.

When they tried to wash it off, the water and solvents beaded up and ran off the sneakers. Sherman and fellow chemist Sam Smith realized that the mixture could be used to protect fabrics from water and other fluids. After three years of work, the mixture was patented and released as Scotchgard Protector™ in 1956.

In a 1997 speech to students, Sherman explained that being an inventor does not require a lot of money or education, nor is it a matter of age or gender. She once remarked, "How many great discoveries would never have occurred were it not for accidents?"

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2007

[Text from file received from Paul Niemann]

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