Major Inventions and breakthroughs made by Women

8th March marks International Women’s Day, a day that started out as a way highlight the gender pay gap, and whilst the International Day continues to campaign to achieve this goal, it now also encompasses the celebration of the important contributions of all women in every facet of life. It is therefore only fitting that, this month, we highlight some of the major breakthroughs and inventions made by women that often get overlooked.

Katherine Johnson was hailed as one of NASA’s leading mathematicians and provided the calculations of orbital mechanics for the USA’s first crewed spaceflight. Growing up in segregated America in the early 1900s she excelled in academics and became the first black, female student at West Virginia University. After starting a career as a Maths teacher, and having a family, she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. When the Space Race started, Johnson was brought into the Space Task Group, running trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission, America’s first human spaceflight. In John Glen’s orbital mission, he requested that Katherine Johnson manually run the numbers of the orbital flight to ensure the computer systems were correct before he was ready to be launched into space. Her talent for mathematics outperformed the highest-level computers at the time, which gained her greater trust from her colleagues. Modern day space flight would not be possible without her ground-breaking work.

If you’re reading this then the chances are you’re connected to a Wi-Fi system, or at least within reach of a device that is. Wi-Fi has changed the way we operate, it means that we no longer need to be physically connected to a router to browse the internet, and it has paved the way for Smart Phones to become what they are today. For this we must thank Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American Actress who developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes in WWII. Her pioneering work was incorporated into Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi technologies. Lamarr was a keen inventor who, with no formal training, also developed an improved traffic light systems and suggested the design of airplanes be made more streamlined to mimic the fastest birds and fish.  

Kevlar, Stephanie Kwolek’s invention, is used in many aspects of everyday life: it has been used to make skis, parachutes, boats, airplanes and cables. However, its best-known application can directly be attributed to saving countless lives, where those in combat zones often place their life in the hands of the polymer fibre created by Kwolek. Working as a Chemist for DuPont she discovered poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, a synthetic fibre showing properties of exceptional strength and stiffness, which eventually was adapted by her and her team to be commercially released as Kevlar. In her lifetime she also contributed to products such as Spandex, Nomex, and Lycra.

Whilst we celebrate the historical contributions of these inspiring women, we must also recognise that women today remain overlooked and underpaid in many fields and their accomplishments still go untold. We must strive to eradicate gender inequality and provide future generations with role models from all walks of life. 

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