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Mothers of Invention : Science: Recognition has long proved elusive for women inventors. Catherine Greene helped build the cotton gin, but Eli Whitney got the patent. And whoever heard of Hedy Lamarr the inventor ?

September 23, 1992|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"How many women's inventions are hidden under the name of fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, we cannot of course know," lamented Charlotte Smith, founder of the National Women's Industrial League in 1890 and the first to try to tally the number of women patent-holders.

Smith found that women inventors gave up patents--and profits--for many reasons. Ellen F. Eglin, who invented the clothes wringer and sold the patent rights for a meager $18, told Smith's Woman Inventor newspaper why:

"You know I am black, and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer." Eglin's invention made a lot of money, but not for her.

Black hairstylist Margorite Joyner was more fortunate. Her 1928 invention of a Permanent Wave Machine--which straightened black women's hair and curled white women's hair--made her wealthy, even though she gave her employer the patent.

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Almost 70% of women's inventions patented by 1895 had to do with hearth and home, according to Smith's survey. But during times of war, with men otherwise occupied, women's work on outside projects exploded.

During the Civil War, for example, women patented a "self-inflator" for raising sunken ships, a high-tech hospital table and a submarine telescope.

Over the past two decades, as institutions like CalTech and MIT have courted women and more women scientists have found homes in well-funded commercial labs, the number of patents issued to women for non-domestic inventions has soared. About half the patents issued to women since the 1970s have been for non-domestic creations, according to the Patent Office.

The first American woman to receive a patent was a gentle weaver who revolutionized the hat-making industry by weaving straw with silk. But the first (and to date, only) woman in the Inventors' Hall of Fame is scientist Elion.

Some women cross over between the worlds of domesticity and industry. Ruth Handler, for example, invented the Barbie doll as well as the first breast prosthesis for mastectomy patients.

Inventive (read: desperate) mothers have been responsible for designs to ease their child-care load--from the first baby-jumper, invented by Jane Wells in 1872, to the disposable diaper, patented by Marion Donovan in 1951. Ann Moore invented the Snugli child carrier after a West African tour with the Peace Corps--and then went on to patent a personal carrier for portable oxygen supplies.

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But the stories of modern women and their inventions don't all have happy endings.

Ask Ruth Siems, the General Foods home economist who invented Stove Top Stuffing. Although the breakthrough earned her a plaque and a $125 bonus, it didn't help her keep her job of 33 years when the company was taken over by Philip Morris, according to author Macdonald.

Still, Siems had the last word. In 1984, when the 1 billionth package of stuffing rolled off the assembly line and no one invited her to the celebration, Siems found her response in the message on the back of the commemorative T-shirt: "Stuff It."

Times research librarian Joyce Pinney contributed to this story.

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