The Feminine Touch!

Part 1
Barrie Blake-Coleman

“A Women has to be Twice as Good as a Man to be Thought Half as Good”   (Anon)


Writing in 1960, Egon Larson, prefacing his book 'Ideas and Invention' apologised to his readers for being able to mention ‘only a few woman’ when citing landmarks in the history of invention. He noted Carmen Sylva (a Romanian Queen?) credited with the invention of a silent typewriter, and mentioned too the wonderful Mrs Montague, commemorated in stone ‘in her home town’ for her invention of the shirt stud and detachable shirt collar. He was also aware of a German Hausfrau called Merckel, supposedly (but not recognised as) the first inventor of the friction match, and he credited a Mrs Plum for the invention of the railway ventilator. However, in his apologia for being unable to cite more examples he points out that ‘almost all the great inventions have been made by men’ and the lack of first rate woman inventors ‘- is not the fault of woman -‘ for they are ‘kept by society in the home, slaving for husband and children and ‘barred from scientific interests!

As will be discussed later, whereas Larson’s premise might have been correct, certainly the conclusion (adamant though it is) appears to be dubious. Be that as it may, those enlightened with a sense of history have always taken a similar position; that taken as a whole, women have been denied not only proper access, but also proper credit and recognition in the history of invention, science and technology.  An article of mine, for example, broke years of silence over the sad and often outrageous treatment meted out to Marie Killick, the inventor of the sapphire stylus for audio record reproduction.  (A Gem of an Idea - Mrs Killick and the Sapphire Stylus Inventors World Winter 1995, Postscript - Summer 1996)


This series of short observations and case notes, to be concluded over forthcoming issues, continues the theme and is intended to further highlight the role of women in invention and sciences. It is hoped that this will create a greater awareness of the role and nature of those women who have quietly excelled - despite male supremacy and a culture that discouraged women from entering the workplace. 


But Why Talk About It?

Because it is important to set the record straight without fuss.  The issue is simple, women’s involvement with invention and its allied disciplines has given something of lasting value and credit - we now see further than Larson and are aware that many women touched invention or science and made it much more than it was, and often did so for the common good. But, however profound our observations here, these notes are not meant to be a thesis, nor will they proffer a dialectic or polemic. And as for the current debate on gender, herein there is no favouritism or presumption of superiority regarding men or women - only, one hopes, clarity. 


Neither, it must be said, is this outline intended to be a cohesive and detailed history of woman in invention or science. These passing remarks, if they have any value at all, are important simply because each reference or citation plucks from obscurity many women who contributed to innovation, and deserved more than a fleeting mention on a long forgotten patent or scientific report.



The fact that we decide to remember at all is the first step on the road to historical rehabilitation. Only recently have studies in the nature and role of woman in science and industry come to the fore. Yet, even if it were a mature subject, it remains true that many women who contributed significantly to these fields will never be lifted from anonymity. Too many (far more than is desirable) will slip the net and ever remain nameless - though we can at least attempt to put some of the record straight. Even so, it must be said that underlying our choice of cases is the appreciation that what we might consider as a very serious omission in our histories, others would think of it as trivial, esoteric or of no account.


These factors, which influence the decision to choose particular individuals, have a pragmatic, as well as a practical string.  The individuals concerned, if they have had any recognition at all, have inherited much less than they deserve, and where the scientific and technological world has taken note it has either been grudging and tardy, or left unsung for too long. In past eras, few women had a strong advocate for their status or endeavour, nor could they expect an impartial evaluation of their merit. The fact that a trace of them exists so long after their time has passed is, by definition, tantamount to recognition. Nevertheless, and very regretfully, untraceable female inventors have the same status as anonymous male inventors - never to be heard of again.


It is with hindsight and the use of today’s social values and codes that we tend to judge past worth and behaviour, and we may mistake matters if we fail to account for the social, scientific and technological culture of past times. Any retrospective must be carefully managed.  We are at risk of assigning a place in history as much on the evidence for prejudice (against the woman) as for any genuine contribution she might have made in the laboratory or workshop. We must be wary of this.  Nor should we forget that a failure to recognise a sound contribution (at the time it should have been made) is often something which itself can only be remedied with hindsight. 


Even today, we must surely accept that there are ideas and discoveries which will not surface (and be properly credited); because established science and technology is too conservative or too full of those that will not, or cannot, see. Equally, inventions and scientific discoveries can be ahead of their time - and their true value has yet to be determined. And least, but not last, there is much acclaimed in a contemporary context, only to be discredited later.


The decision to include one case and not another is to a large extent a subjective response to the research data. As intimated above, and at the risk of glibly stating the obvious, we cannot know the unknowable, or trace those who are untraceable. We assume that anonymity in name is anonymity in history - though one hastens to add that the evolution of technology is full of faceless individuals.


If individuals are known, then the criteria simply calls to the roll’s those who deserved better treatment than their own time, or posterity, has given them. However, apart from this small observation, it would be prudent to say no more about what will constitute the final list of cases in our histories, other than to say that as mentioned above, obscurity is obscurity.


Unjustly treated?

It is equally true that not every woman in science and technology was ignored, nor were they all unjustly treated. The exceptions are evident - Marie Curie was lauded in her day, as was Irene Curie-Joliot.  Marie Goeppert-Mayer received the Nobel Prize for Physics (1963) and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin became Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1964, and though earlier Lise Meitner should have got the Nobel Prize for Physics (and it was reprehensible that she did not) she lived to enjoy substantial recognition. Mary D. Waller is now recognised as advancing the work of Chaldni and Rayleigh in demonstrating modes of vibration in metal plates using the dry-ice method. And, lest we forget, Watson and Crick acknowledged that but for the X-Ray diffraction work of Rosalind Franklin the DNA double helix would have been virtually impossible to discover.  


Many notable examples testify to the fact that prejudice and jealousy cannot suppress the determined woman. But in past times many who struggled through academic training and into the laboratory were often at best tolerated or, worse, deliberately sidelined. The more so in the days before sufficient women had fought their way into the scientific, medical and engineering professions to influence its culture. Male thinking needed to become more receptive to admitting women into the male dominated scientific fraternities and cultures. How this began can only be explained in terms of those few exceptional men who were strong enough, and professionally (scientifically) unassailable enough, to allow a woman to enter their world with a generous acknowledgment of their aptitude.

In the late 18th century the French chemist  Antoine Lavoisier used his wife’s abilities extensively, later in the 1840’s Babbage, in designing his computer [difference engine], depended heavily on Ada Augusta, Countess Lovelace, to translate and annotate mathematical papers, write programmes and carry out mathematical computations. Eli Whitney, inventor of the ‘Cotton Gin’ gained inspiration for his design from Catherine Greene who owned the Savannah plantation where he developed his cotton-picking machine.  Similarly, Einstein in developing his theory of relativity was thankful for inspiration gained from the theory of invariants due to the algebraic mathematician Emmy (Amalie) Noether. Sir William Herschel’s sister, Caroline Lucretia Herschel, became celebrated through her (practical and observational) astronomical work in partnership with her brother, and was the first of a number of famous early women astronomers which included the Americans Maria Mitchell and Annie J. Cannon.  Indeed, Margaret L. Huggins, whose work in Astro-photography and Astro-Spectroscopy of the Orion Nebulae is well recognised, said that “I find men welcome women scientists provided they have the proper knowledge”! 

Lord Rayleigh, later Nobel Laureate, collaborated extensively with Mrs Sidgwick (nee’ Balfour) on electrical experiments, and the workforce of the Roebling Company had no qualms about taking orders from Emily Roebling [when she took over as project engineer for the final three years of the building of the Brooklyn bridge following the invaliding (1879) of her husband Washington Roebling].


The Braggs, Father and son, both Nobel Laureates, practically founded a dynasty of female crystallographers, though they were disdainfully referred to as ‘Bragg’s harem’. 



There is a school of thought which advocates that in the late 18th century woman held sway in science. It holds that in times when science was not formally taught, but was considered the pastime of the leisured class, it was science, and not the classics, which was a subject considered right and proper for woman. But this conceals the fact that for all this apparent freedom to investigate nature, much claimed for woman in such eras, few apparently did so, and those that did take up an interest were obscured or eclipsed by the resource and prowess of those male counterparts whose opportunities (and abilities) were manifestly the greater. This does not dismiss the influence that woman had in science, and on men in science, but the contribution was on the whole at best low key, and when conspicuous, served as the exception to the rule. As a comment on this particular observation, Michael Faraday and others expressed a lifetime debt to the book first written in 1805 by Jane Marcet (Conversation’s in Chemistry). Faraday said that the book “- gave him his foundation in science - “though it is a telling fact that the authors name did not appear on the title page!




As suggested above, we must be wary therefore not to unfairly overestimate the contribution of any individual woman to the sciences (in whatever era she might appear). It is too easy to give greater credence and value to a woman simply because she struggled for recognition in a time where her mere appearance as a scientist or engineer was a major achievement in itself.

Of course, this says nothing of how we should assess the value of the ‘modern’ woman scientist or technologist, where ‘opportunities’, it is claimed, are ‘equal’.  In terms of this, if we are to appreciate the difference in perception that exists between the woman of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and the present, we are we obliged seek a line of demarcation.


At its extreme, this line exists between the confident woman of modern times (who expects to be taken seriously and compete for education and employment with her male counterpart on equal terms) with the woman of yesteryear who knew she faced a massive battle to follow her chosen interest or profession, or to get her science, ideas or inventions treated seriously. Yet, the game is just as serious. In reality, expectation is one thing, opportunity another. The struggle for recognition is just as hard.

Marie Killick

Sapphire Stylus - Killick Patent

Marie Curie



Irene & Marie




Lise Meitner

Ada Augusta,

Countess Lovelace

Babbage's Difference Engine in use

Ada, Aged Four

Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze with her husband,

Antoine Lavoisier

Catherine Greene

Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney




Caroline Lucretia Herschel

Margaret L. Huggins

Orion Nebula

Maria Mitchell

Annie J. Cannon

Eleanor Sidgwick

Emily Roebling

Brooklyn Bridge

Jane Marcet

Plate from Conversation's in Chemistry

Ada Augusta -

The Countess of