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19 Things You Might Not Know Were Invented by Women

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Necessity isn't the only mother of invention. Though it wasn't always easy to get patents or the credit they deserved, women are responsible for many items we use today.

1. THE PAPER BAG

America got a brand new paper bag when cotton mill worker Margaret Knight invented a machine to make them with a flat square bottom in 1868. (Paper bags originally looked more like envelopes.) A man named Charles Annan saw her design and tried to patent the idea first. Knight filed a lawsuit and won the patent fair and square in 1871.

2. KEVLAR

Lightweight, high-tensile Kevlar—five times stronger than steel—will take a bullet for you. DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek accidentally invented it while trying to perfect a lighter fiber for car tires and earned a patent in 1966.

3. THE FOOT-PEDAL TRASH CAN

Lillian Gilbreth improved existing inventions with small, but ingenious, tweaks. In the early 1900s, she designed the shelves inside refrigerator doors, made the can opener easier to use, and tidied up cleaning with a foot pedal trash can. Gilbreth is most famous for her pioneering work in efficiency management and ergonomics with her husband, Frank. Two of their 12 children, Frank Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth, humorously wrote about their home/work collaborations in the book Cheaper by the Dozen.

4. MONOPOLY

Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord's Game to spread the economic theory of Georgism—teaching players about the unfairness of land-grabbing, the disadvantages of renting, and the need for a single land value tax on owners. Fun stuff! Magie patented the board game in 1904 and self-published it in 1906. Nearly 30 years later, a man named Charles Darrow rejiggered the board design and message and sold it to Parker Brothers as Monopoly. The company bought Magie's patent for the original game for $500 and no royalties.

5. WINDSHIELD WIPERS

Drivers were skeptical when Mary Anderson invented the first manual windshield wipers in 1903. They thought it was safer to drive with rain and snow obscuring the road than to pull a lever to clear it. (Another woman inventor, Charlotte Bridgwood, invented an automatic version with an electric roller in 1917. It didn't take off, either.) But by the time Anderson's patent expired in 1920, windshield wipers were cleaning up. Cadillac was the first to include them in every car model, and other companies soon followed.

6. DISPOSABLE DIAPERS

Marion Donovan didn't take all the mess out of diaper changing when she patented the waterproof "Boater" in 1951. But she changed parenting—and well, babies—forever. The waterproof diaper cover, originally made with a shower curtain, was first sold at Saks Fifth Avenue. Donovan sold the patent to the Keko Corporation for $1 million and then created an entirely disposable model a few years later. Pampers was born in 1961.

7. THE DISHWASHER

Patented in 1886, the first dishwasher combined high water pressure, a wheel, a boiler, and a wire rack like the ones still used for dish drying. Inventor Josephine Cochrane never used it herself, but it made life easier for her servants.

8. LIQUID PAPER

In the days before the delete key, secretary Bette Nesmith Graham secretly used white tempera paint to cover up her typing errors. She spent years perfecting the formula in her kitchen before patenting Liquid Paper in 1958. Gillette bought her company in 1979 for $47.5 million. And that's no typo.

9. ALPHABET BLOCKS

Children don't read books by anti-suffrage author Adeline D.T. Whitney these days—and that's probably for the better. But the wooden blocks she patented in 1882 still help them learn their ABCs.

10. THE APGAR SCORE

Life is a series of tests, starting with the Apgar, named after obstetrical anesthesiologist Dr. Virginia Apgar. In 1952, she began testing newborns one minute and five minutes after birth to determine if they needed immediate care. About 10 years later, the medical community made a backronym—an acronym designed to fit an existing word—to remember the criteria scored: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration.

11. MARINE SIGNAL FLARES

Communication between ships was once limited to colored flags, lanterns, and screaming things like "Thar she blows!" really loudly. Martha Coston didn't come up with the idea for signal flares all by herself. She found plans in a notebook that belonged to her late husband. The determined widow spent 10 years working with chemists and pyrotechnics experts to make the idea a reality. But she was only named administratrix in the 1859 patent—Mr. Coston got credited as the inventor.

12. THE CIRCULAR SAW

A weaver named Tabitha Babbitt was the first to suggest that lumber workers use a circular saw instead of the two-man pit saw that only cut when pulled forward. She made a prototype and attached it to her spinning wheel in 1813. Babbitt's Shaker community didn't approve of filing a patent, but they took full advantage of the invention.

13. RETRACTABLE DOG LEASH

New York City dog owner Mary A. Delaney patented the first retractable leading device in 1908. It attached to the collar, keeping pooches under control, while giving them some freedom to roam. Incidentally, someone named R.C. O'Connor patented the first child harness 11 years later. Coincidence? Maybe.

14. SUBMARINE TELESCOPE AND LAMP

It's difficult to find any in-depth information about early inventor Sarah Mather. Her combination telescope and lamp for submarines, patented in 1845, speaks for itself.

15. FOLDING CABINET BED

Sarah E. Goode's folding cabinet bed didn't just maximize space in small homes. In 1885, it made her the first African-American woman with a U.S. patent. The fully functional desk could be used by day and then folded down for a good night's sleep. The Murphy bed came along some 15 years later.

16. THE SOLAR HOUSE

Biophysicist Maria Telkes's place was in the house—the very first 100 percent solar house. 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. Telkes used Glauber’s salt, the sodium salt of sulfuric acid, to store heat in preparation for sunless days. Dover House survived nearly three Massachusetts winters before the system failed.

17. SCOTCHGUARD

Apparently, it takes a stain to fight one. In 1952, 3M chemist Patsy Sherman was perplexed when some fluorochemical rubber spilled on a lab assistant's shoe and wouldn't come off. Without changing the color of the shoe, the stain repelled water, oil, and other liquids. Sherman and her co-inventor Samuel Smith called it Scotchguard. And the rest is ... preserving your couch.

18. INVISIBLE GLASS

Katharine Blodgett, General Electric's first female scientist, discovered a way to transfer thin monomolecular coatings to glass and metals in 1935. The result: glass that eliminated glare and distortion. It clearly revolutionized cameras, microscopes, eyeglasses, and more.

19. COMPUTERS

Women in computer science have a role model in Grace Hopper. She and Howard Aiken designed Harvard's Mark I computer, a five-ton, room-sized machine in 1944. Hopper 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. In 1959, Hopper was part of the team that developed COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages.

This article originally ran in 2013.

All images via iStock.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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