10 of the World’s Greatest Female Inventors You Need to Know

From the computer to an ice-cream maker, some of the most important discoveries and inventions by women.

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Jun 14, 2015· 3 MIN READ
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We’ve all heard of famous inventors such as Thomas Jefferson (Monticello’s Great Clock), Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone), and Benjamin Franklin (bifocal glasses), but what about Grace Hopper and Stephanie Kwolek?

Hopper invented computer programming—without which, it’s fair to say, the world would be a very different place—and Kwolek invented Kevlar, a material five times stronger than steel and currently used around the world to protect people from bullets.

Despite how important these inventions are, history has shown us that women’s achievements are often overlooked when it comes to handing out praise. So we’re looking to spread the love.

Below, a look at some of the most important discoveries and inventions made by women in the last 100 years:

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1. Marie Curie: Theory of radioactivity

Marie Curie. (Photo: Getty Images)

Turns out, you can split an atom. This was one of the major discoveries made by Marie Curie while she was studying “radioactive” elements. Curie received her first Nobel Prize for the discovery of radioactivity and her second for the discovery of polonium and radium. She was also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes.

2. Nancy Johnson: The ice-cream maker

Nancy Johnson's invention. (Photo: Thomas Firak/Getty Images)

In 1843, Johnson invented the hand-cranked ice-cream maker, which is still used to this day. We don’t know what more to say other than thank you, Nancy Johnson, thank you.

3. Maria Telkes: The first 100 percent solar-powered house

Maria Telkes. (Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Getty Images)

In 1947, the Hungarian scientist invented the thermoelectric power generator to provide heat for Dover House, a wedge-shaped structure she conceived with architect Eleanor Raymond. Girl power, indeed!

4. Ann Tsukamoto: Stem cell isolation

Ann Tsukamoto. (Photo: Wikipedia)

This was a huge and complex invention—the ability to isolate the stem cell has been vital in learning more about cancer. The hope is that one day it could lead to a cure for cancer and many other diseases.

5. Grace Hopper: The computer

Grace Hopper. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Hopper designed Harvard’s Mark I computer, a five-ton, room-size machine, in 1944. She invented the compiler that translated written language into computer code and coined the terms “bug” and “debugging” when she had to remove moths from the device. Now, just close your eyes for a minute and try to think what the world would be like without this invention.

6. Elizabeth Magie: Monopoly

Elizabeth Magie. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Speaking of a time before the computer, no childhood memories are complete without the recollection of getting into a tizzy about your brother stealing from the bank or not passing “Go.” Originally called The Landlord’s Game and a critique of the injustices of unchecked capitalism, the idea for Monopoly was stolen by a man named Charles Darrow and sold to Parker Brothers. The company did eventually track down Magie but only offered her $500 for her invention.

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7. Rosalind Franklin: DNA double helix

Rosalind Franklin. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Although the discovery of the DNA double helix is often attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for physiology in 1962, it was not actually theirs to claim.

Rosalind Franklin, a British biophysicist, was the first person to capture a photographic image while observing molecules using x-ray diffraction. But without her permission, an estranged male colleague showed the photograph to competitors Watson and Crick, who stole the credit as their own.

8. Maria Beasley: The life raft

Life raft plans and illustration. (Photos: Wikipedia; Getty Images)

Countless lives have been lost at sea, as people have navigated the oceans for hundreds of years. But thanks to Beasley, voyages across the globe got a little safer: She’s credited for inventing the life raft in 1882.

9. Stephanie Kwolek: Kevlar

Kevlar and Stephanie Kwolek. (Photos: Getty Images)

Thanks to Kwolek’s invention in 1964, Kevlar has been used in hundreds of products, including bicycle tires, tennis rackets, racing sails, body armor, frying pans, musical instruments, bulletproof vests, and more. The para-aramid synthetic fiber is five times stronger than steel.

10. Shirley Jackson: The source of all things telecommunication

Shirley Jackson. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jackson, a theoretical physicist, was the first black woman to be awarded a Ph.D. from MIT, in 1973. While working at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in the late 1970s and ’80s, she conducted breakthrough scientific research with subatomic particles that enabled others to invent the portable fax, touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber-optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.

A version of this article previously appeared on One.org.