Women have always been inventors. But they haven’t always gotten the credit they deserve. For too long, laws and practices prevented women from receiving equal recognition, compensation and agency for their contributions to society.
Women like Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer algorithm in 1843, and Dr. Shirley Jackson, whose work led to fiber optic cables, have shaped the way we interact, work, and get around. They were pioneers but encountered barriers due to sexism and racism in their fields and communities. Even today, women only hold about 22% of patents and aren’t expected to reach equality with their male counterparts until 2092. Of the more than 600 Nobel Prizes that have been awarded in science fields, only 20 have gone to women — and only 57 women have won a Nobel Prize in total.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating five women whose inventions continue to make our driving experiences better today. Next time you’re behind the wheel, take a moment to appreciate these innovators for their ideas and inventions.
Thank Bertha Benz for inventing brake pads (and road trips)
In 1888, Bertha Benz (yes, that Benz) wanted to show the world what the horseless carriage — later known as an automobile — that her husband invented could do. Without telling him, she decided to take her sons on a long-distance trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim to prove the vehicle would hold up.
During her 120-mile journey, the worn-out wooden brakes in the carriage started to fail, causing a major safety concern. But Bertha had an idea. She stopped along the way and asked a shoemaker to install leather soles, creating the first set of brake pads.
Her plan to show off the carriage worked. As she drove, onlookers began asking for rides and more and more people started believing the automobile was a good idea, thanks largely to her smart safety solve that made the journey possible.
The next time you’re warming up in a toasty car, thank Margaret A. Wilcox
If you think getting into your freezing car is uncomfortable now, imagine climbing into one during a 19th-century Chicago winter. In 1893, Chicago native Margaret A. Wilcox came up with a solution: the car heater. But at the time, it wasn’t common for women to get credit for their inventions.
Women had only recently gained the rights to own property and control patents. Instead, they had to file under their father’s or husband’s name and allow them to control legal and financial matters. So when Wilcox invented the interior car heater, she fought against the norms for a patent in her own name, making her one of the first women in the U.S. to achieve this.
On rainy days, credit Mary Anderson for designing windshield wipers
Mary Anderson was riding in a streetcar in New York City when she noticed the driver kept getting out to brush snow off his windshield in traffic. Not super efficient. So she started sketching an idea for a windshield cleaning device right there in the backseat.
After a few tries, she made a working wooden wiper with rubber on the edges that attached to a lever by the steering wheel. Drivers could pull the lever to drag the wiper across the windshield, clearing rain, snow, and other debris off the glass.
Ultimately, she was granted a patent for her invention in 1903, and windshield wipers became standard within the next 10 years. But, unfortunately, she was never compensated for her design.
When other drivers use their turn signals, remember Florence Lawrence
Florence Lawrence is best known as an actress who appeared in more than 250 silent films in the early 20th century, but she found a real sense of freedom behind the wheel. In 1914, after spending years learning how cars worked, she devised a tool for signaling turns. With the push of a button, drivers could raise and lower a flag on the rear bumper of the car to let the drivers behind them know they were about to turn.
Later, she created a similar device that raised a flag that read “STOP” on the back of vehicles when drivers tapped their brakes. While turn signals and brake lights are important components of today’s cars, she never received recognition or a patent for her inventions.
In 1920, she told a reporter, “A car to me is something that is almost human, something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.” At the time, driving was a symbol of women’s liberation. “The average woman does her own repairing. She is curious enough to investigate every little creak and squeak of her car and to remedy it.”
When Waze routing saves you time, thank Hedy Lamarr for GPS technology
During World War II, actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr made a breakthrough trying to create a device that could block enemy ships from jamming torpedo signals. The U.S. Navy rejected her frequency-hopping design, but later used it as the groundwork for other devices. Though she received a patent in 1941, she was never paid for her work.
In wireless communication systems, frequency-hopping allows more users to communicate at the same time with less signal interference. If one signal is blocked, it can hop to another. Over the years, her invention paved the way for new ideas, including the ubiquitous Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth technology we rely on today (and every time we use Waze).
Without these five women, our driving experiences would look a lot different. Their contributions underscore the importance of more diverse voices in science, but most of them were never recognized in their time. Needless to say, there’s still a lot of progress to be made. But the first step is learning more about and recognizing the women shaping our lives today, both on and off the road.