At the centennial celebration of the American patent system held in Washington city in April, 1891, the Honorable Carroll D. Wright of Massachusetts in an address on the Relation of Invention to Labor, said these words: “The age of invention found its birth in the development of spinning and weaving, and as those two arts lay at the very foundation of the industrial arts of the ancients, so they are the basic arts of the modern system of industry.” The inspiration that led to the celebration of the beginning of the second century of our American patent system was a happy one, for it gave opportunity for the description of the development of invention in its many places by masters in the various divisions of knowledge.

Conspicuous among the papers presented on that occasion was one by Professor Otis T. Mason. This eminent student of mankind has given many years of his life to the study of the rich stores of objects that have come to the National Museum from all parts of the world, and from these he has worked out the evolution of many of our household implements, so that there was none more competent than he to tell of the Birth of Invention. He sees the beginning of the cradle “when the savage woman a century or two ago strapped her dusky offspring to a rude frame and hung it upon the nearest sapling for the winds to rock,” and the ocean steamer, with skin of steel drawn over ribs of like material, he traces to the Eskimo’s framework of driftwood or whale’s rib, over which is stretched a covering of sealskin.

From this paper grew his valuable book on The Origin of Inventions, and in it he writes: “There is no reason to doubt that the very first women were weavers of a crude kind and that the textile art has been with us always in one form or another.” And so it is evident that our oldest invention, that of weaving, had its origin with woman.

It is not difficult from this beginning to show how primitive man, occupied with the necessity of providing his family with food, became proficient in the arts of hunting and fishing, while the care of the household was left to the wife, from whom she came the inspirations that have given to us our modern civilization. Indeed, within the memory of most of us, in that part of the country which was called the Great West, could be seen the Indian woman fashioning the pottery of which “no tool but a woman’s delicate fingers has touched the gracious surface,” or weaving the blankets that rival the rugs of the Orient in the richness of their coloring, or making the baskets that are now so eagerly sought by lovers of the beautiful and curious. From a desire to make the objects more beautiful she sought and found inspiration “in the vivid flash of lightning, the fleecy clouds, the seed pods of plants, the ripple of a stream, the scale of a fish, the graceful interlacing of twigs and stems, and the flight of birds across the sky.” Woman’s interpretation of nature furnished her with designs for decoration, and thus far the art-instinct began to manifest itself in mankind.

History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman's Achievement in Invention and Science - Mary Kies

Mary Kies

Senator Daniel of Virginia wrote: “Woman’s intuitions are proverbial; when she turns them to a mechanical invention the possibilities of achievement surpass the scope of prophecy.” On May 5, 1809, Mary Kies received for an invention of “straw weaving with silk or thread,” the first patent issued to a woman by the United States Government. Mrs. Mary S. Lockwood, in commenting on this patent, said: “It is a short road back to the primitive woman who found the warp and woof for mat and basket in waving grasses, palms, and calamus surrounding her door.” It was not until six years later, on July 21, 1815, that a second patent was granted to a woman and then the invention was a “corset.” Mary Brush was the name of the inventor. Prior to 1850 there were only thirty-two patents recorded as being issued to women, and of that number two were for corsets and one for a sheet of iron shovel. From the list of titles of inventions published not much information can be gleaned, but we can note that in 1845 Sarah P. Mather is credited as being the fortunate inventor of a “submarine telescope and lamp.”

During the 1850-60, twenty-three patents were issued to women by the United States Patent Office. No. 6423, issued to Agdalena S. Goodman of Duval County, Florida, for an improvement in broom brushes, is said to be the first patent given to “a native born American woman.” The titles given for these years include a baby-jumper, lady’s skirt, clothes frame, door-lock, fountain pen, and composition for kindling fires.

Having demonstrated her right to obtain the deserved recognition of her inventive skill from the National Government, woman at once began her active competition with man in that domain. It is not surprising therefore to find in the records of the ten years that followed 1860 a large increase in the number of names of women among the successful inventors of that period. The entire number of patents granted to women during the time mentioned was two hundred and sixty-seven, or more than ten times as many as were issued to women during the previous decade. Obviously it will be impossible to attempt any account of the inventions of this period, but in the list of their titles the word improvement begins to appear more and more frequently, and there were patents granted to women for an improvement in reaping and mowing machines, in locomotive wheels, in reducing straw and other fibrous substances for the manufacture of paper pulp, in heating stoves, and in corn plows. Many of these improvements refer to special articles of women’s dress, and so there are improvements recorded in corset skirt supporters, in hair crimpers, in ladies’ hoods, in ladies’ paper undersleeves, in hoop skirts, in headdresses, in combined corsets and bustles, and a rouge pad.

During the quarter of a century that followed, the number of patents granted to women increased more than tenfold, and in the lists published that extend down to March 1, 1895, there are recorded about thirty-five hundred patents and designs that were granted to women. Since that time, that is, during the past four years, fully five hundred more patents have been issued to women, thus swelling the entire number to more than four thousand.

At the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, there was a special collection exhibit of the inventions made by American women, and the models of three hundred and thirty-five were shown. The character of that exhibit has been well described by Mrs. Candace Wheeler, who wrote: “The exhibits were sufficiently varied to excite surprise at the new direction in which women have chosen to exercise their artistic ability, and so excellent is the application of principles of beauty as to warrant the belief that the best era of art and manufacture has fairly begun.”

It is to the realization of this belief that we confidently look forward, for in the domain of art manufacture woman is easily supreme. In it she will find her best and surest place as an inventor.

Miriam, The Prophetess Sister of Moses and Aaron


There have been many great scientists among women. In the remote past, Mrs. Henrietta I. Bolton tells us that Miriam, the sister of Moses, was “learned in the sciences, and invented the bain-marie, the double boiler of our kitchens, which still bears her name.”

History's Women: Misc. Articles: Woman's Achievement in Invention and Science in the Late 1800's- Sophie Kowalevsky

Sophie Kowalevsky

As is well known, the universities of Italy early gave women every opportunity of acquiring knowledge and rewarded those of preëminent ability by calling them to professorial duties. In more recent years we have had the storming of the doors of the great universities of Europe by women eager to study. One by one, these institutions have succumbed to woman’s persistence, and in continental Europe it is now possible for a woman to obtain an education equal to that of man, in all branches of science. Conservative England still denies equal rights to the gentler sex in the venerable colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, while in our own country Radcliffe and Barnard on the one hand, and Smith and Vassar on the other, are typical of the many institutions where every opportunity is afforded to women who desire to learn. The sad story of Sophie Kowalevsky, so recently given to the world in book form, deserves special mention in this connection, for it tells how one woman overcame all obstacles and persisted until the world crowned her with honors, such as are accorded only to the very great. As a distinguished mathematician her name will always remain with us.

Science is commonly divided into the physical and natural branches, each of which has many followers devoted to its pursuit. It is conventional to begin with mathematics as the first of the physical sciences, and a worthy example of a woman has gained a high reputation herself in that branch is Mrs. F. Franklin of Baltimore, Md. As Miss Christine Ladd, she graduated from Vassar late in the seventies, and having shown a predilection for mathematics she was invited by the authorities of Johns Hopkins University to continue her studies there with all the privileges and emoluments of a fellow, save only the name. She devoted herself to the development of the new specialty of algebraic logic, and has published papers of uncommon merit in the American Journal of Mathematics.

In astronomy the career of Miss Maria Mitchell serves to demonstrate the possibilities of success in that science, although she herself modestly claimed that she “was not born with much genius, but with great persistency.” During the lifetime of Henry Draper his wife’s name was given as his assistant at the little observatory at Hastings on the Hudson and right loyally has she shown her interest in astronomy by her valuable contributions to the work at Harvard carried on as a memorial to her husband. The sudden death of the astronomer, Richard A. Proctor, resulted in the taking up of his unfinished work by his daughter, Miss Mary Proctor, who has on frequent occasions presented acceptable papers before scientific societies.

Illustrations in sufficient numbers have been cited to show that woman has, and can take, high rank in science. The increased opportunities for education and the recognition that scientific work now commands, makes it certain that more women in the future will turn to science, believing that in its study they will find a vocation that will gain for them the greatest rewards at the highest fame.

In this chapter examples have been chosen entirely from American women, and in closing let us say that the many papers presented in recent years before the British Association for the Advancement of Science led that body, at its meeting in Dover in 1899, to announce that “the status of women in the association” would be considered at the meeting next year. A decision will be reached in time, but we may be sure that the result will be to place a woman on an equality with man in that organization which is foremost among scientific bodies in the world.


Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.

Quotes by Mrs. Lockwook & Sophie Kowalevsky