Women of Invention


Several years ago I was having a conversation with Ann Marie in which she offhandedly remarked

“Well, women invented bread.”

These words were profound to me because I had never thought of invention in that way before.  The word invention always conjured up images of industrialization, which seemed very male to me (even though of course there are many female contributions to industrial invention as well).   But more importantly, every human who invented any device was nourished and kept warm by women’s great inventions.  What would life be like without all of women’s great recipes?  How would it be without the beautiful woven fabrics that clothe and blanket us?

Recently a patron asked me to find The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (843 CHR).  The little bit that she told me about the book intrigued me, so I requested my own copy.  Christine de Pizan was the first “woman of letters”, the first known feminist writer.  Knowing that this book was from the 1400s, I expected it to be laborious and confusing, but it was surprisingly clear and concise and enjoyable to read.  She writes about many important women in history, women who would have otherwise been lost from memory.  This book truly altered my feelings about being a woman.  I think when someone’s words recorded in a book can do this–enhance your knowledge or feelings about life–this is probably the highest good that a book (and by extension, a library) can do for humanity.  This is one of the most positive and fascinating books I have ever read.  If you are interested in the part about women’s inventions, pages 70-83 is where she tells about many women inventors, including:

  • Carmentis who established the Latin alphabet & syntax
  • Minerva who invented the technique of making armor from iron and steel and invented flutes and fifes
  • Queen Ceres, called by her people the “Goddess of Grain” because she discovered cultivation, grinding of grains and the making of bread
  • The Goddess Isis who taught the Egyptians how to set up vegetable gardens and developed planting and grafting methods
  • The maiden Arachne who invented the art of dyeing wool, making tapestries, cultivating flax and making linen


This photo is from a manuscript produced in the 15th century.  Click here to see more pages.

Another book in our collection which is very exciting to me is called Women’s Work:  The First 20,000 years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 305.43 BAR.  Elizabeth Barber has been weaving on a loom since childhood and she is very familiar with the art.  When an ancient human body was discovered preserved by ice in Austria, Barber was asked to make a larger replica of the scrap of cloth that was found on the body.  While doing this project she discovered many things about the people that lived in that time period, circa 800 B.C.E.  Barber also did 17 years of research on Prehistoric Textiles, published by Princeton University Press in 1991.  Before this research it was common belief that before medieval times humans did not know how to weave complicated patterns.  Because of her life-long love and knowledge of weaving she noticed that many of the patterns on ancient walls and pottery had designs which looked as if they had been copied from weaving patterns.  Women’s Work is a book of all the information she learned about ancient women while doing the research for Prehistoric Textiles.

Here are some of my favorite known women inventors throughout history:

Year 2600 B.C.E.  Lei-Tzu or Si Ling-chi (meaning “Lady of the Silkworm”), wife of the Emperor, discovered/invented silk, silk-making and weaving.

Year 2500 B.C.E.  Queen Semiranis had a tunnel built underneath the Euphrates River, the first tunnel below a river.  It linked the Babylonian Royal Palace with the Temple of Jupiter.

Year 50 B.C.E.  Mary the Jewess invented many laboratory inventions including the double boiler.

Year 577.  Chinese women of the northern Ch’i province invented matches!  Nice job ladies!!

matches pic

Year 630.  Queen Sonduk built the first known observatory in the Far East, Ch’omsong-dae “Tower of the Moon and Stars”.  The tower lasted through the 20th century.

Year 1793.  Elizabeth Lucas Pinckney is distinguished for her successful cultivation of the indigo plant, which is used to make blue dye for fabrics.

Year 1884.  Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards established the world’s first sanitary chemical lab and travelled around the world teaching engineers to set up similar labs.

Year 1936.  The Ethiopian Women’s Association developed the gas mask.

Year 1940.  Mary E. Pennington received the Garvan Medal for her pioneering work on food preservation.

Year 1940.  Bernice M. McPherson won the US Navy Award for developing a welding process for weapons sites that greatly reduced production costs.

Year 1948.  Lillian Moller Gilbreth invented the electric food mixer, step-on trash cans and refrigerators with shelves in the doors.

Year 1961.  Dr. Hallie Alexander discovered the cure for bacterial meningitis.

You can read about many more women in these 2 books, where I learned most of this information:

The Wilson Chronology of Women’s Achievements by Irene M. Franck & David M. Brownstone, 305.402 Franck

The Timetables of Women’s History by Karen Greenspan, 305.4 GRE

My favorite woman inventor is my sister Rachel.  She works for a manufacturing company, developing kitchen appliances.  She may be the next Lillian Moller Gilbreth!  She is working on plans for a kitchen invention that I am so excited about but I can’t tell you because it’s TOP SECRET!

Check out these books on patenting your own invention:

The Patent Guide: a friendly guide to protecting and profiting from patents by Carl W. Battle.  608 BAT

Everyone’s guide to copyrights, trademarks and patents: the comprehensive handbook for protecting your writing, inventions and other creative work: with official, ready-to-use application forms.  346.0482 EVE

Jesse Lee Harmon is the bookkeeper/library assistant at OWL and is currently humming Hands by Jewel.

2 thoughts on “Women of Invention

  1. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like if men invented everything. Thanks to all women who make this life beautiful. Especially you. 😉

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