First Women Inventors

First American Women Inventors

Before the 1970s, the topic of women’s history was largely ignored by the general public. Women have probably been inventing since the dawn of time without recognition. Many women faced prejudice and ridicule when they sought help from men to implement their ideas. Property laws also made it difficult for women to acquire patents for their inventions. By 1850 only thirty-two patents had been issued to women.

Image: Sybilla Masters Corn Refiner

Sybilla Masters (1715)
Sybilla Masters invented a way to clean and refine the Indian corn that the colonists grew in early America and received the first patent issued to man or woman in recorded American history in 1715. Masters’ innovation processed the corn into many different food and cloth products.

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Mary Kies

Woman Inventor: First to be Granted a U.S. Patent

Mary Kies was an early 19th-century American who received the first patent granted to a woman by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, on May 5, 1809. Kies had invented a new technique for weaving straw with silk or thread, and First Lady Dolley Madison praised her for boosting the nation’s hat industry. Unfortunately, the patent file was destroyed in the great Patent Office fire in 1836.

She was born Mary Dixon in Killingly, Connecticut on March 21, 1752, the daughter of John and Janet Kennedy Dixon. Mary married Isaac Pike I, and had a son Isaac Pike II. After his death she married John Kies.

Prior to 1790, only men could author a patent. The Patent Act of 1790 opened the door for any male or female to protect his or her invention with a patent. However, because in many states women could not legally own property independent of their husbands, many women inventors did not bother to patent their new inventions.

For example, there is much speculation that the authorship of the cotton gin patent of 1794 by Eli Whitney should have included Catherine Littlefield Greene on the patent, as well as that of the African American slaves who were not allowed to author a patent.

Mary Kies was not the first American woman to improve hat making. In 1798, New Englander Betsy Metcalf invented a method of braiding straw which became very popular. Metcalf employed many women to make her hats, but she did not patent her process. When asked why, Metcalf said she did not want her name being sent to Congress.

During this time, the U.S. government had stopped importing European goods. Napolean was at war with many nations of Europe at the time, and he tried to win the war by blocking trade and hurting his enemies economically. The United States did not want to be drawn into this conflict.

The U.S. government had just begun to encourage domestic manufacturing, and President James Madison was looking to American industries to replace the lost European goods. Hat making was a vital industry in America during this time period because women wore straw hats to work in the field.

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Catherine Greene

Businesswoman and Inventor of the Cotton Gin

Catherine Littlefield was born on February 17, 1755, on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island. Her father, John Littlefield, served in the Rhode Island legislature, and her mother, Phebe Ray, was a descendant of the earliest settlers of Block Island. Her mother died when Catharine was ten years old, and she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Catharine Ray Greene and William Greene – the future governor of the state – in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

Her aunt, an attractive energetic woman who was known as a charming hostess, took over the role of Catherine’s mother, and supervised her education as a young woman of the upper classes. Present during her aunt’s many social gatherings, Catherine caught the interest of several of their bachelor acquaintances when she came of age. A notable visitor was Benjamin Franklin, who had been a close friend of Aunt Catharine.

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Sybilla Masters

First American Woman Inventor

Image: Sybilla Masters Corn Mill Invention

American colonist and inventor, Sybilla Masters is first mentioned in the records of the New Jersey colony in 1692. Not too long after that date, she married a Quaker merchant named Thomas Masters, and moved with him to Philadelphia. Thomas became a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1701, and served two terms as the Mayor of Philadelphia, in 1707 and 1708.

Sybilla, like most colonial women, had to work hard to care for her family and prepare their food. One of the common foods of the time was hominy. Hominy meal was made from ground-up Indian corn, sometimes called Hominy Grits. At that time, corn was ground between two large stones called millstones, which was hard work.

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