Finding extraordinary engineers for exceptional clients

Engineering in Action: Woman Power!

February 16th, 2012

Q. What do bulletproof vests, fire escapes and windshield wipers have in common?

 A. All were invented by, or refined by, women.

Bulletproof Vest

Credit for the first commercially available bulletproof vest goes to a man, but it was a woman who invented Kevlar, the material used in most modern bulletproof vests.

Stephanie Kwolek, working at DuPont, created the first of a family of synthetic fibers of exceptional strength and stiffness, including Kevlar.

Kwolek graduated from the women’s college of Carnegie-Mellon University and applied for a position as a chemist with the DuPont Company in 1946. She worked on several projects, including a search for new polymers as well as a new condensation process that takes place at lower temperatures. In 1965, she was asked to scout for the next generation of high-performance fibers and invented Kevlar.

Kwolek has received many awards for her invention, including induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994 as only the fourth woman member of 113. In 1996 she received the National Medal of Technology, and in 1997 the Perkin Medal, presented by the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry—both honors rarely awarded to women.

Fire Escape

Supposedly, the first fire escape was patented in 1766. That system was rudimentary and involved a pulley attached to a wicker basket. In 1887, an American inventor named Anna Connelly registered a patent for the exterior steel staircase that would serve as the prototype for the modern metal fire escape. Connelly’s invention introduced a cost-effective way to add safety to both existing buildings and new construction in the 1900s. It became mandatory under the building codes that cities began to adopt at the turn of the century.

Windshield Wipers

In 1902, on a New York City streetcar on a snowy day, Mary Anderson watched the driver struggle to see through the front window and wondered why no one had ever done something to improve visibility in inclement weather. Upon being told it had been tried and couldn’t be done, Anderson began drawing diagrams for what would later become windshield wipers.

Her windshield wipers were made of wood and rubber and were removable so that the streetcar appearance would not be compromised in good weather. She added a counterweight to maintain an even pressure on the windshield, and effectively wipe off snow and rain. She was awarded a patent in 1903 for a “window-cleaning device,” or windshield wipers.

On her patent application, she stated, “My invention relates to an improvement in window-cleaning devices in which a radially-swinging arm is actuated by a handle from inside of a car-vestibule.”

As soon as Anderson’s windshield wipers were patented, she wrote to a large company in Canada offering them the rights. The company was not interested, stating that her invention had little, if any, commercial value and would not sell. Anderson’s patent was put away and eventually expired. Although Anderson never profited from her invention, it was re-examined soon after, and by 1913 mechanical windshield wipers were standard on domestic cars, including the Ford Model T.

In 1917, windshield wipers evolved when the “Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner,” was patented by Charlotte Bridgewood – another woman.

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