Thomas Frey: What name springs to mind when you say the phrase “famous female inventor?” If you’re having a tough time answering this, you are not alone.

I became interested in this topic when I ran across a very curious statistic. In 1980 only 1.7% of all the patent filings were filed by women. After doing some research I found that the problem started long before that.

The first U.S. patent was issued in 1809 to Mary Dixon Kies, a Connecticut native who invented a process for weaving straw with silk or thread. First Lady Dolley Madison publicly thanked her for boosting the nation’s hat industry. Unfortunately, this historic patent was destroyed in the great Patent Office fire in 1836.

Until about 1840, only 20 other patents were issued to women, all related to apparel, tools, cook stoves, and fire places. From 1855 to 1865, women received an average of 10.1 patents per year while their male counterparts received 3,767.4 patents. During the next decade, from 1865 to 1875 the number of women-issued patents increased to 67.3 compared to men’s 11,918.4 patents.

A rare exception to the social norm in 1843, Ada Lovelace wrote a scientific paper that anticipated the development of computer software, artificial intelligence and computer music. The daughter of the poet Lord Byron, Lady Ada Lovelace was known as the “enchantress of numbers” who collaborated with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical thinking-calculating machine. The Ada programming language was later named after her. However, Ada didn’t bother patenting any of her work because it wasn’t socially acceptable for most women to be filing patents.

By 1910 the number of women patents were still only 8,596, just 0.8 per cent of the total patents issued in the United States. The reasons behind this tend to fall into four broad categories: legal, economic, social, and education.

More here.