Female Innovation in the Automotive Industry

Over the years, cars have become safer and more comfortable than ever before. But, did you know, a number of features we rely on today were invented by amazing women?

We take a look at 7 of them below:

1. Windscreen Wipers

The early cars and trams didn’t have anything to clean their windscreens with during bad weather, and whilst on a trip to New York, Mary Anderson noted that tram drivers in the city had to open their windows to clear the frost, which left them open to the elements.

When she returned home, she designed a hand operated device that removed snow or rain from the windscreen, operated by a lever in the vehicle. She patented her invention in 1903 for 17 years, but it wasn’t until her patent ran out that windscreen wipers were used commercially.

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2. Car Heater

Margaret Wilcox is the lady to credit with the first heating mechanism for cars. She was a mechanical engineer and in 1893, she developed a way for the engine to open and send hot air into the front cabin of vehicles. This has obviously been improved upon over the years but it made car journeys a lot more comfortable in cold weather for 19th century motorists.

3. Indicators and Brake Lights

Interestingly, these were invented by Florence Lawrence, who was better known as a silent film star. She made a lot of money from appearing in over 300 films and, unusually for women of the time, was able to buy herself a car. She had a big interest in the automobile industry, and noted that the safety measures could be improved upon.

Through her experience of driving, she invented the first ever mechanical turning signal and brake signal in 1914. This worked by pushing a button in the car which would raise a flag up on the rear bumper to let people know which way the car was going turn. If you put your foot on the brake, a ‘stop’ sign would pop up to warn those behind you that you were slowing dow

The trouble was, she didn’t patent her designs and although these are now essential in every automobile, she isn’t credited by many as the original inventor – in fact some large companies tried to take the credit instead!

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4. GPS & Wifi

This invention was way ahead of its time when Hedy Lemarr, better know as an actress and beauty icon, created a wireless transmission technology alongside George Antheil during the second World War.

The original invention helped to work against the Nazis by ensuring secret codes could not be detected through the manipulation of radio frequencies. This was the predecessor for modern GPS, found in most new cars today.

Interestingly, it was patented in 1941, but didn’t receive much attention at all until much later on, during the digital boom, and it became the foundation for modern mobile phones, WiFi and GPS!

5. Non-Reflective Glass

Katharine Burr Blodgett was the first woman to work as a scientist at General Electric in New York, after graduating with a Ph.D in Physics at Cambridge University.

Whilst there she worked with Irving Langmuir to develop a monomolecular coating for surfaces like water, metal and glass. Expanding on this, she created ‘invisible glass’, where visible light reflected by the layers of film cancelled the reflection created by the glass.

This glass is now used on windscreens, so they don’t have a glare, making them much safer. It is also used for camera lenses, movie projectors, submarine periscopes, eye glasses and computer screens!

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6. Brake Pads

This is definitely an example of ‘behind every successful man, is a great woman’. Bertha Benz was the wife of Karl Benz, the name behind Mercedes Benz. In 1886, Karl Benz presented his Patent-Motorwagen to the world. This was the world’s first production automobile.

On 5th August 1888, then 39 year old Bertha Benz drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim to visit her mother with her sons Richard and Eugen – a 66 mile journey. She didn’t tell Karl or the authorities (she would have required permission at the time), and became the first person to drive a car a significant distance (albeit illegally!).

Along the way, she had to solve numerous problems, including sourcing the petrol solvent the car needed to run as it didn’t have a fuel tank (only available in chemists), cleaning a blocked fuel line with her hair pin and using her garter as insulation material. It was when the wooden brakes began to fail that she decided they needed some form of pad to stop it wearing down so quickly. To solve this, she visited a cobbler to install leather over the brakes, creating the first ever brake pads. She also noted that two gears were not enough to get up the numerous hills they encountered on the journey, often enlisting the help from her sons to push the car up the hills.

She managed to get to Pforzheim in the evening and then drove back a few days later. The trip garnered a lot of publicity, which is what Bertha wanted, and led to the couple introducing many improvements to the car, including the brake pads and extra gears.

It was the worlds first test drive, and showed the automotive industry that they were an essential part of their business.


7. Kevlar Tyres

In 1946, Stephanie Kwolek, an American chemist, started working at DuPont’s New York facility in 1946 due to a lack of men as they were overseas fighting in World War two. She only planned on being there temporarily so she could go on to study medicine, but enjoyed the work, so decided to stay.

It was whilst working for DuPont that she invented Kevlar, whilst looking for a lightweight strong fibre for car tyres.

As she signed over the Kevlar patent to the company, she did not profit from it’s discovery.

Kevlar has now been used as a material in more than 200 applications including tennis rackets, skis, parachute lines, boats, airplanes, ropes, cables, bullet proof vests, car tires, fire fighter boots, hockey sticks, armoured cars and cut resistant gloves (Wikipedia).

As a result of her invention, she was added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995 (only the fourth woman to be added)

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27th of November 2019