Mind The Inventor Gap

Article By Alice Heggie

It’s World Intellectual Property Day and the World Intellectual Property Organization’s theme for this year is Women in innovation and creativity. But while there has been an increase in patents filed by and awarded to women, the progress towards closing the inventor gap has been painfully slow.

According the UK Intellectual Property Office, since the turn of the century, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of female inventors worldwide. But despite this the numbers still remain pretty low. In 2000 only 6.8% of all inventors worldwide were female and in 2015 it was still at just 11.5%. In the UK female inventorship has risen by just 16% in the last decade, and currently sits at a meagre 7.3%. Naturally the proportion of female inventors varies by country, but even in the countries with the highest proportions of female inventors the numbers are still pretty low: looking at over 200 years’ worth of patents data, the two countries with the highest number are female inventors are Russia with 15.7% and France with still just 11.7%. Surprisingly Germany and Japan have two of the biggest inventor gaps, with 5.5% and 3.7% of their inventors being women respectively.

Research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in America from 2015 has predicted that women won’t hold as many patents as men until at least the year 2092. This is rather startling.

Naturally under-representation of women in patent heavy fields such as engineering and the physical sciences has been blamed for this vast and persistent gap. But perhaps also the visibility of female inventors (or lack there of) is to blame as well. Historically women’s contributions are often forgotten so, in a bid to inspire some budding inventors out there, we’ve decided to take a look at six important female inventors (who you might never have heard of):

Sarah Guppy

You’ve probably heard of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, possibly even walked across it. But without Sarah Guppy the bridge would never have been completed. In 1811 she patented the first of her inventions, a method of making safe piling for bridge foundations, and advised Isambard Kingdom Brunel on his original designs for the bridge as well as on his work on the railways.  She also invented and patented a number of more domestic products, including a device for a tea or coffee urn, which would cook eggs in the steam and had a small dish to keep toast warm.

Hedy Lamarr

Originally from Austria, Lamarr was a Hollywood actress who starred in many films in the early part of the 20th Century. Off screen Lamarr was a budding inventor and invented a spread spectrum technology, with composer George Antheil, which ultimately contributed to the development of Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. Their invention was granted a patent in 1942 (filed using her married name Hedy Kiesler Markey).

Ada Lovelace

You will almost certainly have heard of Countess Ada Lovelace’s father: Lord Byron. But the lesser known daughter of the famous poet is considered by many to have been the ‘first computer programmer’. In 19th century, while working with Charles Babbage, she wrote the first algorithm specifically intended for implementation on a computer. Although Lovelace didn’t patent her algorithm, and it was also never tested, she is definitely worth a mention here as Babbage’s Analytical Engine and Lovelace’s notes on it are now considered to have been early models for a computer and description of its software.

Stephanie Kwolek

Kowlek was an American chemist. She started working for the company DuPont in 1946, and enjoyed it so much she stayed there for the whole of her 40 year career. In 1965, during a project to try and create a new fibre that could be used to reinforce car tires, Kwolek discovered a new polymer that, when spun into a fibre, was more than nine times stronger than anything that had been made before. This was developed into Kevlar, which was officially introduced in 1971. Kwolek did not profit from her discovery however, as she signed over the Kevlar patent to the company.

Hertha Marks Ayrton

Ayrton studied Mathematics at Girton College in Cambridge, and passed the Mathematical Tripos in 1880. But she was never formally awarded her degree because, at that time, Cambridge refused to award women with full academic degrees. Ayrton went on to register 26 patents between 1884 and her death in 1923, 13 of which were to improve arc lamps that were used as searchlights in both world wars.

Ann Tsukamoto

Tsukamoto is the co-inventor of a process to isolate the human stem cell, the patent for which was awarded to her and her co-inventors in 1991. This process has allowed scientists to have a greater understanding of cancer, and is vital to the work to find a cure for this and other fatal diseases.

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