There’s no polite way to say it: the automotive industry is dominated by men. But there are many important automotive inventions we still use today that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for women. Here we look at the top 10 female automotive inventors to see how their ingenuity shaped the way we drive.
10. Dorothy Levitt: Rear-View Mirror
Dorothy Levitt may be the first person in history to use a rear-view mirror. In 1909, her book “The Woman and the Car” stated that women should always have a little mirror fixed in a convenient spot so that things behind were visible while driving. Coincidentally, rear-view mirrors appeared in cars just a few years later (1914).
9. June McCarrol – Dividing Lines
Necessity is often the, um, mother of invention. But in the case of Jane McCarrol it was a nasty road accident. After swerving to avoid a truck travelling on the wrong side of the road and coming to grief, McCarrol was struck with the idea of painting a diving line down the centre of the road. By 1924 her idea was commonplace.
8. Hedy Lamarr – Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
In 1941, Hedy Lamarr invented a radio guidance system that used frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology to help guide Allied torpedoes. It sounds a little convoluted, but Lamarr’s work formed
the framework of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology we use in cars to this very day.
7. Dr. Gladys West – Satellite Navigation
For 1956 Dr. Gladys West was truly ahead of her time. Working as a mathematician for the US Naval Weapons Lab, her programming of inter-ballistic missiles formed the basis of the modern global positioning system (GPS) or satellite navigation, as we now know it. Dr. West is also the only African-American woman in our list.
6. Katharine Burr Blodgett – Non-Reflective Glass
As well as being the first woman to work as a scientist for General Electric, Katharine Burr Blodgett was also a gifted physicist whose work in surface chemistry pioneered non-reflective glass. The benefits to the automotive industry were immediately obvious, and by the late 1930s non-reflective glass was in use the world over.
5. Margaret Wilcox – In-Car Heater
The car heater dates back to 1893 and is the invention of Margaret Wilcox. Like car heaters today, Wilcox’s invention drew warmed water from the engine through pipes and into the cabin of the car. Her system warmed the toes of front-seat passengers and as a bonus, kept the windscreen from icing up.
4. Mary Anderson – Windscreen Wiper
When Mary Anderson invented the hand-operated windscreen wiper in 1903 she was told the device had no commercial value and was a distraction to drivers. Nineteen years later the idea was motorised by another female inventor, Charlotte Bridgwood, and soon became standard equipment on Cadillac models.
3. Helen Blair Bartlett – Insulated Spark Plug
During the 1930s, while working for the AC Spark Plug company, geologist Helen Blair Bartlett invented the ceramic compound used to insulate spark plugs. Her invention not only made the spark plug safer and more reliable (especially in wet weather), but also more efficient. We still use ceramic spark plug insulation today.
2. Bertha Benz – Brake Pads
We all know Bertha Benz undertook the first long-distance road trip in 1888, but few people know the journey sparked the idea of the modern brake pad. After completing the drive, Benz told husband Karl (of Mercedes-Benz fame) that brake linings would improve the car’s stopping performance and, of course, she was right.
1. Florence Lawrence – Indicators & Brake Lights
Lawrence really was a female automotive inventor ahead of her time. In the early 1900s she recognised the need for drivers to be able to signal one another and invented both the auto-signalling arm – an early take on the modern indicator – and the rear-mounted stop sign – a forerunner to the modern brake light.