Today, we invent liquid paper, brown bags, and
brassieres. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Here's a book called
Mothers of Invention by Vare and
Ptacek about women inventors. The creative array in
the book is vast. Of course, the inventions lean
toward home and hearth -- the child's toilet seat,
brown paper bags, the brassiere, and vacuum
canning. The foreword is by actress Julie Newmar,
who played Catwoman in the old Batman
TV series. That's because she's one of the
inventors in the book. She holds a patent for a
clever panty hose improvement.
Typical of these inventors is Betsy Nesmith, who
gave us Liquid Paper. She was a secretary using the
new IBM typewriter in 1951. Its ink left nasty
smudges when you erased it. So in a burst of
creative frustration, she went home and invented a
liquid for painting out mistakes. It's base was
white tempera paint.
The liquid was an immediate hit with other typists.
By 1956 she had a cottage industry going. She
labeled it "Mistake Out," and her small son Michael
helped her fill hundreds of bottles a month. When
that number reached thousands, she renamed it
"Liquid Paper." Then one day her mind wandered, and
she typed "The Liquid Paper Company" on a letter
instead of her employer's name. She was fired, but
no matter: her Liquid Paper Company was putting out
25 million bottles a year when she retired as
chairman of the board in 1975. Betsy Nesmith died
in 1980 and left a fortune to be divided between
her son and the large charitable foundation she'd
A common thread among these women is
problem-solving. Melitta Bentz invented the
so-called Mellitta drip coffee-making process in
1909. She was really just trying to keep the
grounds out of her own coffee. Sara Baker became an
M.D. in 1898 and went into public health. She
patented everything from children's clothes to
special eyedrops for preventing the congenital
blindness caused by gonorrhea. She turned her
creative energies loose on the problems she fought
daily in the Hell's Kitchen ghetto area of New
York. It was her detective work that tracked down
the notorious Typhoid Mary -- the unwitting carrier
who transmitted typhoid all over New York.
Oddest of all these inventors was Hedy Lamar.
During WW-II, she played roles like the exotic
Tondelayo in White Cargo. But she was
also co-inventor of a submarine communications
system. Her system switched among radio frequencies
to defeat enemy monitoring. Hedy Lamar never let
interviewers get near the subject. Authors Vare and
Ptacek think she saw inventive ability tarnishing
her carefully-tended sex-symbol image.
That, of course, has been the great contaminant of
women's inventive genius. Still, it's clear as day
that hard-core mechanical creativity is every bit
as strong in women as it is in men.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds