Important Inventions by Women, May 2014
Last weekend I had the pleasure of returning to my former community, Larchmont , New York, to give a speech to the Larchmont Historical Society, of which I had been a long-time, active member. The topic was “From the Can Opener to Blue Jeans: Stories of Ingenious American Inventors,” and a good time was had by all. It was great to see old friends and meet new ones, and I am actually indebted to former neighbors, Susan and Randy Doud, who told me of one of the women featured here….Ann Moore who created and patented the Snugli.
As we near Memorial Day, I know, in the midst of picnics and barbecues, we’ll also be remembering the men and women throughout our history who have answered the call of their country. To read about one long-forgotten hero, click here for the story of Charles David, Jr.
All the modern improvements of the 21st century do not spare us from the very serious need of well-planned exit methods from a burning building.
Fire has always been a danger in communities, but by the 19th century, apartment buildings were adding floors; multi-floor factories were being built, and public buildings were getting bigger. These buildings were often made of wood, so in a fire they burned quickly.
Fire department ladders in cities were generally only equipped to reach the fourth floor so any people on a higher floor needed a way to get out fast. The newspapers of the day are filled with stories of women and children who died in factory fires, and entire families who were unable to get out of their apartment buildings (often actually a tenement building).
In 1860 a major fire in a tenement building left many families helpless. The public saw desperate faces at open windows; some of the peopled opted to jump but those on higher floors did not survive.
The following year, NYC passed a law requiring exterior stairs on the outside of multi-floor buildings (the wording in the law described our idea of the traditional iron fire escape). Landlords resisted because of the added cost, and two years later the wording was relaxed, specifying that each building needed a means of egress. This set inventors to work trying to design ways to get people out of buildings. The inventions patented included a head-mounted parachute contraption to let a person float to the ground, a basket in which people would descend, one at a time, and some roll-out ladders as well as many other designs. Thirty-three of the patents received during the years 1877-1895 went to women. Perhaps the high death toll of women and children encouraged women to address the challenge.
While Anna Connelly is widely credited with inventing the “fire escape,” her design was not for a classic fire escape; it was a fire escape bridge, which was actually equally valuable for the time.
Often in fires of the day, the only direction people could travel was up (if staircases had burned or flames were licking at the lower floors). Connelly patented (1887) an iron railed bridge. Once people escaped to the rooftop, they could use the bridge to make their way to the next building and go to the ground within the neighboring building.
There was no end in continued efforts to create fire escapes. Tubular chutes were tried in the 1930s at schools and hospitals. Other places experimented with evacuation slides.
Today buildings must comply with many fire safety laws, and interior fire-safe staircases are among the requirements.
Ann Moore (1940- ) was a pediatric nurse who was among the early volunteers for the Peace Corps. In the 1960s, she and her
husband were on assignment in West Africa. In Togo Moore observed that babies rode in fabric slings on their mothers’ backs. The infants seemed quite content because they were with their mothers, and the motion was likely soothing; their mothers were happy because they had their hands free for lifting or carrying or whatever they needed to do.
When Moore returned to the United States and gave birth to her first-born, she remembered the Togo baby carrier. However, her own attempt to create a sling for her baby was unsuccessful. She found that her baby kept making a slow descent down her back. Moore decided the solution was a front carrier. Using the model of an all-purpose backpack, she and her mother worked together to fashion what was to become the Snugli. It was patented in 1969.
In 1988 and 1989 Ann Moore received patents on “Air Lift” a backpack-style modification of the Snugli intended for carrying portable oxygen dispensers.
Tabitha Babbitt (1784- ca. 1858) was a member of the Harvard Shaker community in Massachusetts where her primary occupation was as a weaver. However, Babbitt seemed to enjoy investigating how tasks could be done better.
One improvement she made was to the spinning wheel. She created a double spinning head, which allowed a woman to spin twice as much yarn as was formerly possible.
For the men in the Shaker community, cutting down trees and sawing logs for homes and furniture took a big part of their time. As Babbitt watched the men work, she noted that their use of the long, two-person saw to cut wood wasn’t very efficient. The blade only cut in one direction, and then the men exerted energy to return the saw to the starting position so the cut could be deepened.
Babbitt began experimenting with a small blade added to a part of her spinning wheel. She found that a small circular blade was far more efficient at cutting thin things like shingles. As a result of that experiment, she developed a bigger one for the men to use on wood. The first circular saw was used by the community in 1813, and it was powered by water, which increased the efficiency even more. That saw is said to be owned by a
museum in Albany, New York.
Because the Shaker people believed in a simple, efficient life, the thought of patenting an idea wasn’t important to them. Tabitha Babbitt simply lived out the principle of working “smarter not harder.”
However, there is an early patent on the circular saw. Three years after Babbitt’s circular saw was in use, two Frenchmen read about the tool in a Shaker newspaper and took out a patent on it.
She also shares credit with Eli Whitney for inventing cut nails. Until the early 19th century, nails all had to be hand-forged, and both Whitney (who patented it) and Babbitt came up with methods for cutting multiple nails from a sheet of iron.
American Red Cross, Clara Barton. 1881, began as a disaster-relief organization
Scoring System for Newborns, Virginia Apgar (first presented at a scientific meeting 1952)
Hair Straightener/hair curler….Margaret Stewart Joyner, 1928
Disposable diapers, Marion Donovan, 1961