Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 326:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 326.

Today, we ask how we've managed to keep a genie in a bottle. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Sybilla Masters carried a patent application to England in 1712. She'd invented a new corn mill, but the patent had to be filed in her husband's name because she was a woman.

Thomas Masters was a Philadelphia merchant, and she'd created a means for making a new corn product they hoped to sell in England. Sybilla used hammers instead of grinding wheels to make hominy meal from Indian maize. She called it Tuscarora rice. The mill went into production and ran well enough. But the enterprise failed because the English couldn't develop a taste for southern grits.

Four years later, Thomas filed another patent when Sybilla invented a fabric made from palmetto and straw. This time she set up shop in London to sell hats and bonnets made of the fabric.

Sybilla Masters was a woman out of her time and far from typical. The Colonies were a man's world. She was not only the first American woman to receive a patent; she was also the last until 1793 -- until America had its own patent office.

In 1793 a Mrs. Samuel Slater patented a new way of spinning cotton thread. Her husband built the famous Slater's Mill in Rhode Island. We still remember the mill, but we've forgotten her and her patent, which served the mill so well.

If female ingenuity was anonymous in 18th-century America, it did only a little better in the 19th century. In 1888, the patent office listed every woman's patent it'd issued. The list showed only 52 before 1860. From then until the report was issued, that number grew to nearly 3000. That was a sure sign women were seeing themselves in new terms, but it was still a small fraction of the total patents.

I wonder how we've kept such a genie -- or genius -- bottled up so long. I recall my mother: born in 1901, she insisted on being an exemplar of the female role. She vigorously denied any knowledge of mechanical things. Yet her ability was uncanny. She did everything from sewing-machine repair to the three-dimensional impossibilities of Irish crocheting. And she did it all with a lazy off-handed grace that made it look simple.

Much of my mother's denial of mechanical ability is still with us. Maybe 21st-century women will look back on the 1990s as the decade they finally lay claim to the inventive genie that so many women still bottle up today. I hope 21st-century women will proudly use the talent that Sybilla Masters alone claimed for herself in Colonial America.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Vare, E.A. and Ptacek, G., Mothers of Invention. New York: Quill, 1987.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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