Currently on display at the Albemarle Museum until August next year is ‘Picturing Women Inventors’, a poster exhibition designed to educate and inspire young people to see themselves as future inventors. This exhibition presents the advances, motivations and challenges faced by women in pursuing their goals and aspirations as inventors.
Inventors you can learn more about in this exhibit include Marilyn Hamilton, who was paralyzed after a hang-gliding accident in 1978. She invented a lightweight wheelchair that was easier to maneuver.
The diversity of origins and age is highlighted. One example is inventor Alex Lewis, who was inspired in 2011 at the age of 12 to adapt a traditional Native American sled, called a travois, by adding wheels to create an easier way to transport families and their belongings into Somalia.
One inventor who was not highlighted in the exhibit but is worth mentioning is Nannie W. Hunter of Elizabeth City, who received a patent in 1867 for her solution to create a more fragrant soap. Many women in North Carolina in the 1800s received patents for new ideas and improvements to other household items such as table easels, corsets, grate and fireplace ledges, mantel protectors. fireplace and even cushion holders.
Also not in the Beulah Louise Henry exhibit from Raleigh. She was an extraordinarily creative and innovative inventor whose abilities led her to obtain the nickname “Lady Edison”.
According to the Journal of the Patent Office Society, Henry was known as the “principal female inventor of the United States”. She was such a prolific inventor that she received 49 patents and had around 110 inventions in total. She was seen as an inspiration to budding Japanese women who were inventors, and a museum exhibit was dedicated to her in Osaka, Japan, in 1937.
When Henry moved to New York City, she founded two companies in 1924, worked as an inventor for Nicholas Machine Works from 1939 to 1955, and was a consultant to many companies that made his inventions.
At the age of 25, Henry received her first patent, in 1912, for a vacuum ice freezer, and a year later she invented a new type of handbag. One of Henry’s best-known inventions was a parasol, or umbrella, that came with various clip-on covers.
A partial list of Henry’s inventions includes the first sewing machine without a bobbin; the protographer (worked with manual typewriters to make four copies of a document); continuously attached envelopes for mass mailings; a curler; a sealing device for inflatable articles; a valve for inflatable articles; a typewriter ; a double chain stitch sewing machine; a producer of his duplex; and can opener.
Henry was unique from most inventors of the day. Although her inventions do not always follow the same theme or category, they are innovative and significantly improve the quality of life for women.
There was a time when many believed that a woman’s role was that of wife and mother. Unfortunately, society then did not offer women the same opportunities to learn or express themselves as it did to men. However, laws and times have changed dramatically for women, giving them more rights and opportunities, and their increasing contributions to science and invention have improved people’s lives.
Rebecca Stiles is an administrative assistant at the Albemarle Museum.