March 1, 2017 11:00 am

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, but let’s not forget about women inventors! They, too, are the mothers of invention. March is Women’s History Month, and over the past couple of years, we’ve written several blogs about well-known women inventors. This year, however, we’d like to highlight some lesser-known (but equally as important!) women inventors who helped the world and made space for other women inventors to succeed.

Bette Nesmith Graham

Bette Nesmith Graham (1924-1980) was an American typist, commercial artist, and the inventor of Liquid Paper. (And – fun fact – she was also the mother of The Monkees musician Michael Nesmith.) As electric typewriters came into widespread use after World War II, Bette Nesmith Graham and countless other secretaries let out a collective groan. The new machines did make typing easier, but their carbon-film ribbons made it impossible to correct mistakes neatly with a pencil eraser. As a result of this predicament, Graham ended up inventing one of the most widely used office products of the 20th century.

Graham credits her breakthrough to observing painters decorating the windows of her office building for the holidays. If they made a mistake, they didn’t start over; the painters simply covered their imperfections with an additional layer. The quick-thinking Graham mimicked their technique by using a white, water-based tempera paint to cover her typing errors. When other secretaries realized how well the invention worked, they flooded Graham with requests for their own supplies. Graham sold her first batch of “Mistake Out” in 1956 and soon she was working full-time to produce and bottle it from her North Dallas home. Graham continued experimenting with the makeup of the substance until she achieved the perfect combination of paint and several other chemicals. The refined product was renamed “Liquid Paper” in 1958 and, amid soaring demand, Graham applied for a patent and a trademark that same year.

Graham’s Liquid Paper Company experienced tremendous growth over the next decade. By 1967, the company had its own corporate headquarters and automated production plant, and sales were in excess of one million units per year. In 1975, Graham moved operations into a 35,000-sq. ft. international Liquid Paper headquarters building in Dallas. She sold the company to Gillette Corporation four years later, just six months before her death in 1980.

Ruth Handler

Ruth Handler (1916-2002) was an American businesswoman and inventor. She served as the president of the toy manufacturer Mattel Inc., and is best remembered for inventing the Barbie Doll.

Perhaps one of the most famous toys in American history, the Barbie doll is a staple in the toy chests of little girls everywhere. Along with co-founding the renowned toy company Mattel, woman inventor, Ruth Handler, also designed the doll that would become an American cultural icon.

While watching her daughter play with paper dolls, Ruth Handler noticed that she and her friends used the dolls to act out the future rather than the present. So, she set out to invent a grown-up, three-dimensional doll that girls could use to act out their dreams. The female inventor named her new Barbie doll invention after the nickname of her daughter Barbara. Later on, a male counterpart doll would be named after her son: Ken.

After premiering at the Toy Fair in 1959, Barbie became an instant sensation. The success of the doll propelled Mattel to become a publicly owned company that soon made Fortune’s list of the 500 largest U.S. industrial companies. Handler served as the company’s president for several of its most successful years. Along with being an inventor and businesswoman, Ruth Handler is also a breast cancer survivor – an experience she used to start another company, Nearly Me, which manufactured realistic-looking breast prostheses.

To this day, the Barbie doll invention remains one of Mattel’s best-selling products.

Patsy Sherman

Patsy Sherman (1930-2008) was an American chemist and co-inventor of Scotchgard, a stain and water repellant. As Patsy Sherman can attest, innovation is often triggered by an unexpected or seemingly trivial occurrence. Hired as a research chemist by 3M Company in 1952, Sherman became one of only a handful of women in the field. She was assigned to work on fluorochemicals, where she and her colleague, Sam Smith, were charged with developing a new kind of rubber for jet aircraft fuel lines.

Instead, a seemingly inconsequential 1953 lab mishap spurred the invention of a completely different application for fluorochemicals. While Sherman and Smith were working in the lab one day, an assistant dropped a bottle of synthetic latex that Sherman had made, causing the compound to splash onto the assistant’s white canvas tennis shoes. The two chemists were fascinated to find that while the substance did not change the look of the shoes, it could not be washed away by any solvents, and it repelled water, oil and other liquids.

Sherman and Smith immediately realized that they had stumbled onto an important discovery, one that could solve the problem of finding a commercially successful application for fluorochemical polymers. Their joint research over the next few years led to the development in 1956 of a versatile fabric stain repellent and material protector, Scotchgard™. The colleagues continued to explore new uses for the product throughout the 1960s, eventually expanding the Scotchgard™ line to include a carpet treatment, automotive upholstery cleaner and numerous other derivations.

Together, Patsy Sherman and Sam Smith obtained 13 patents related to fluorochemical polymers and polymerization processes. Sherman was elected to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1983, and she remained with 3M as Technical Development Manager until her retirement in 1992.

Drawing from her own experiences, Sherman encouraged aspiring inventors with advice that she herself learned decades ago: “Keep your eyes and mind open, and don’t ignore something that doesn’t come out the way you expect it to. Just keep looking at the world with inventor’s eyes!”

Giuliana Tesoro

Giuliana Tesoro (1921-2002) was an Italian inventor and prolific organic chemist with more than 125 U.S. patents, mainly in the fiber and textile industry.

With a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Yale University, she was able to work in many areas of chemistry for industrial companies. She also held a position as a research professor at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, New York.

Through her work and research, she developed processes to prevent static accumulation in synthetic fibers, designed flame-resistant fibers, pioneered improved permanent press properties for textiles and discovered ways to make new manufacturing projects run at peak operation and efficiency. Tesoro held her more than one hundred twenty-five patents in areas related to organic compounds and textile processing.

Thank you to these women for their innovations and for clearing the path for the future of women inventors. Happy Women’s History Month!

Categorized in: