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10 Great Things Invented by Working Moms

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These brilliant women revolutionized the fields of rocket science, medicine, and home coffee brewing—all on top of raising families. Here are 10 inspiring moms whose inventions are worth recognizing.

1. THE HAMMER-BASED CORN MILL // SYBILLA MASTERS

The first British patent granted to an American colonist—male or female—was secured for Sybilla Masters's improved corn mill in 1715. Originally Sybilla Righton, she married the wealthy Philadelphia merchant Thomas Masters around 1695. The pair had seven children together, four of whom survived into adulthood. In between her mothering duties, Sybilla found time to work on her own passion projects.

Her first major invention was a new type of corn mill that used hammers instead of wheels to break up maize into a product she dubbed "Tuscarora Rice." In 1712, she left her family in the colonies and journeyed across the Atlantic to request a patent from the English courts (at the time, though the other colonies approved patents, Pennsylvania didn't). While awaiting approval, she applied for a second patent—this time for her method of weaving fabric for hats and bonnets out of palmetto and straw. It took a few years, but her inventions were eventually recognized by the crown. While Sybilla was credited by name in the documents, her husband, Thomas, was made the official patent-holder. In London, Sybilla opened her own shop and sold apparel made from her fabric. Back in the colonies, she built a mill with her husband that used her special grinding method.

2. MARINE SIGNAL FLARES // MARTHA COSTON

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Tragedy struck Martha Coston’s life at age 21: After the death of her husband, she found herself a single mother of four with few options for supporting her family. Rather than giving in to her circumstances, she found the inspiration to invent a system of signal flares. Her husband had started designing flares that could be seen from long distances at sea before he passed away, but his designs were unworkable. Coston reimagined the concept by borrowing technology from fireworks displays. She received the patent for her "pyrotechnic night signals" in 1859. During the Civil War, her invention helped save the lives of an untold number of shipwrecked sailors.

3. PAPER COFFEE FILTERS // MELITTA BENTZ

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Coffee-lovers have a German housewife to thank for their grit-free cups of joe. Melitta Bentz filed a patent for a paper, disposable coffee filter in 1908. She came up with her filter after piercing holes in the bottom of a brass coffee pot and lining it with a piece of blotting paper from her son’s school notebook to catch the grounds. Prior to her invention, the only ways to get one's morning coffee fix were to make it unfiltered and scoop out the grounds, use a cloth filter and wash it after each use, or to use a brewing method that left a bitter brew—all methods which were messy and a daily hassle. After receiving her patent, Bentz began selling the filters out of a shop in Dresden with her husband and two sons. The coffee filter company Melitta still bears her name today.

4. CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES // RUTH WAKEFIELD

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The chocolate chip cookie is so deeply embedded in American culture that it’s hard to imagine a time without them. But the confection is a fairly recent invention; it emerged from the kitchen of Ruth Wakefield in 1938. After graduating from the Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts in 1924, Wakefield pursued work as a dietitian and gave lectures on food. In 1930, with a toddler at home, Ruth Wakefield and her husband, Kenneth, opened the Tollhouse Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. For decades, the couple ran what became one of the most popular restaurants in the state. But it was in 1938 that Wakefield created the recipe that earned her a spot in the history books.

Many urban legends surround the creation of the first chocolate chip cookies—from a story of Ruth swapping chocolate chunks for nuts at the last minute to one of a haywire mixer spilling morsels into her dough. But according to several newspaper interviews reported by Slate, the decision to bake chocolate bits into her cookies was entirely deliberate. Though the true origin story may be less interesting than the legends, it makes her stroke of genius that much more impressive. What’s less inspiring is what happened to the recipe after it was concocted; the following year she sold the cookies and the Toll House name to Nestle for a dollar, which she was apparently never actually paid.

5. DISPOSABLE DIAPERS // MARION DONOVAN

Marion Donovan made life a lot easier for generations of parents when she revolutionized the diaper industry. By 1946, the 29-year-old former Vogue beauty editor was a Connecticut housewife and a mother of two. The cloth diapers that were ubiquitous at the time were messy, and while rubber baby pants locked in moisture, they also left nasty rashes. Exasperated with what was available, Donovan set to work creating a waterproof diaper cover on her own. The "boater" was made from nylon parachute cloth, and it kept cloth diapers from leaking without irritating babies' sensitive skin. Consumers were smitten, and in 1951 she received a patent for the invention. Her next idea was even more innovative: diapers made from durable, absorbent paper that were intended to be thrown away. After struggling for years to convince the male executives she met with that her product was useful, the idea was taken up by Victor Mills, who used the concept to found Pampers.

6. LIQUID PAPER // BETTE NESMITH GRAHAM

Bette Nesmith Graham was a single mom working as an executive secretary when she invented the answer to the typo. Prior to the age of autocorrect, setting copy correctly on the first try was essential to a typist’s job. But for Graham, that was easier said than done. She came up with a solution to her sloppy typing habits after observing a man painting a sign in a storefront one day. Whenever he made a mistake she noticed he'd cover up the blooper with the same paint he used for the background coat.

Feeling inspired, Graham went home to recreate the scene on a smaller scale. She ended up creating "Mistake Out," a white, water-based tempera paint solution that matched the color of paper. She started out bottling the stuff in her garage with her son (and future Monkees musician), Michael Nesmith. After changing the name to Liquid Paper, her invention grew into a patented enterprise. Despite her success as an entrepreneur, she didn’t quit her secretary job—though she was eventually fired for accidentally typing the name of her own business in a company memo.

7. A TOOL THAT REMOVES CATARACTS // PATRICIA BATH

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After winning several science awards as a high school student, Patricia Bath went on to receive her B.A. from Hunter College in Manhattan in 1964. In 1968, she earned her medical degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. then returned to New York for further training. Bath became the first black ophthalmology resident at New York University in the early 1970s and had a daughter while finishing off her residency. But Bath's invention of the Laserphaco Probe a decade later was ahead of its time—the tiny surgical device used lasers to disintegrate cataracts from within the eyes of patients, helping to fix a major public health problem. Bath was also the first African-American female doctor to receive a medical patent for her device and procedure.

8. A SATELLITE PROPULSION SYSTEM // YVONNE BRILL

Win McNamee/Getty

Yvonne Brill’s vital contribution to NASA is still used by the space flight industry today. Born in 1924 outside Winnipeg, Canada, she was the youngest of three children raised by Belgian immigrants. She moved to California when she learned that the University of Manitoba wouldn't allow women in the engineering department, and she actively pursued a career in rocket science. A few jobs, one marriage, and three kids later, Brill came up with an invention that would forever change space travel. What her "hydrazine resistojet" essentially did was keep satellites from drifting out of orbit without using up inefficient amounts of propellant, and the technology has since been used by numerous top companies, like GE and RCA, to keep their own satellites in orbit. The achievement earned Brill the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011.

9. ADVANCED TELECOMMUNICATIONS TECH // SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON

World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has been shattering barriers her whole life. She entered MIT in 1964 as one of just 30 women in her class, and in 1973 she was the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. from the institution. She did some of her most groundbreaking work while working as a theoretical physicist for AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. During the late 1970s and '80s, around the same time she had her son, the research she did led to developments in making portable fax machines, touch-tone telephones, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind call waiting and caller ID.

10. A BETTER BABY WRAP // ELLE ROWLEY

Motherhood inspired Elle Rowley to invent the product that would change her life. Lugging around her first child in a traditional baby carrier had left Rowley feeling achy and frustrated. After having her second child, Solomon (Solly for short), she invented a more comfortable alternative in 2011. That product was Solly Baby: a soft, lightweight wrap she designed at home in the hours while her children were asleep. "Having never used another wrap, I honestly didn’t know I’d done anything different than other wraps on the market," Rowley told Mother magazine, "but friends and family quickly told me I had, that mine was much lighter weight, more comfortable, and looked so good that it made it fun to wear." Six years and two more babies later, Solly Baby has blown up into a full-fledged business. Today Rowley lives with her husband and children in San Diego, and she’s also the co-founder of the kids' clothing line ARQ.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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