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
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
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