There’s an assumption that the sciences are the domain of men, the humanities the domain of women. But to perpetuate this stereotype is to be ignorant of history. In actual fact, women have blazed a trail in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematical fields for centuries. Below, we spotlight just three examples of female engineering ingenuity.
Stephanie Kwolek and Kevlar
The heavy-duty Kevlar vests worn by soldiers and police officers in active duty are so rugged, you’d think they were forged in the depths of Mordor.
In reality, Kevlar was the creation of softly-spoken Stephanie Kwolek, an American chemist who worked at the DuPont labs in sunny Delaware.
Kwolek discovered the chemical formula for Kevlar by accident. In 1965, her team had been looking for a lightweight material to reinforce car tires, but then they happened upon a buttermilk-coloured liquid that, when heated and “spun” into thin strands, reordered itself into something incredibly strong and resistant.
Kevlar went into production in 1971 and Kwolek stayed at the engineering plant until 1986, often taking grateful calls from officers saved by her invention.
She never did the job for the fame or the accolades – she simply enjoyed the work.
“What I love about my work is that I have the opportunity to be creative every day. I love the excitement. There’s something about me, that’s an inherent part of me, that wants the excitement of invention and creativity.”
Rosalind Franklin and DNA
The story of DNA can’t be told without Rosalind Franklin.
In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson published a paper in Nature magazine, establishing that DNA – the molecule at the root of all life – was a double helix (in other words, shaped like a curved staircase).
Their work was visionary, but that vision had help. Rosalind Franklin, a scientist at King’s College, had already captured an X-ray image of DNA two years earlier. Unbeknownst to her, her work had been shown to Crick and Watson, who used the discovery to make their name.
Crick and Watson were talented chemists in their own right, but Franklin deserved more credit than she ever got. Sadly, she died before she saw her name up in lights.
It’s only thanks to popular culture that her name is revered at all. Movies like Life Story (1987) and the 2011 Nicole Kidman play – Photograph 51 – have resurrected her legacy.
Marie van Brittan Brown and home security surveillance
Brown’s invention was an accident of necessity. Working as a nurse in Queens, New York in the 1960s, she often found herself home alone at night. Fearing for her safety, she attached a camera to her front door, then rigged it up so that it could move between four holes drilled into the door.
The camera was linked to a monitor, situated in Brown’s bedroom, giving the New York native a good look at door-knockers. This was paired with a microphone, which allowed Brown to talk to would-be visitors.
She even thought of a system to open the door remotely if the caller was welcome, and a button that wired her straight to the police if the caller was up to no good.
How’s that for clever thinking?
Ultimately, female engineering ingenuity is everywhere you look and it’s up to the media to champion this great work. If you’re feeling inspired, or want to learn about other women who have helped change the world, take a look at STEM Superheroines, an initiative between Currys PC World and the Microsoft Surface, which spotlights brilliant female inventors.