CA. 1200 BCE History’s first documented chemist (i.e., a person who uses specialized equipment and chemical processes to make new compounds) was in fact a perfumer: Tapputi-Belatekallim, a Babylonian woman who mixed up scents in ancient Mesopotamia. Cuneiform clay tablets tell us that Tapputi, an overseer at the royal palace (that’s what Belatekallim means), extracted and distilled essential oils from plants using a process she developed, based on modified kitchen items and cookery recipes. Tapputi made oils and salves for the king, along the way inventing several notable distilling, extracting, and sublimating processes (as did another Mesopotamian female perfumer and author whose name has, sadly, been lost to time).
ELLEN F. EGLIN
BORN CA. 1849; ACTIVE 1888 Ellen Eglin, an African American housekeeper in Washington, D.C., invented an improved, more efficient clothes wringer for washing machines. But instead of getting rich as heck, Ellen (whose surname is sometimes incorrectly cited as Eglui) sold her invention for a mere $18 to a white agent (who then proceeded to get rich as heck). The decision was sadly pragmatic; as Ellen said in an 1891 interview, “If it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer.” Ellen began work on another device that she was determined “will be known as a black woman’s.” Hoping to showcase it at the Women’s International Industrial Inventors Congress, she attended an inventors’ reception hosted by U.S. president William Henry Harrison. We don’t know what became of Ellen—or her inventions—after that.
1866–1948 Did you know that a lady invented Monopoly? No? Well, meet Elizabeth Magie. The daughter of an Illinois abolitionist, Lizzie worked as a stenographer, a job that helped her save enough money to buy her own house and property in Washington, D.C. (pretty unusual for a woman at the time, and totally shades of things to come). In the evenings, Lizzie expressed herself creatively: writing, acting, drawing…and inventing a board game. In 1903, inspired by the anti-monopolist writings of the political economist Henry George, Lizzie developed and patented the Landlord’s Game, “a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” So why don’t people know about her? Because Charles Darrow is credited with the invention. Darrow had played a version of Lizzie’s game, copied the rules, and then sold it to Parker Brothers. He went on to make millions, while Lizzie reportedly got a measly $500.
MADAM C. J. WALKER
1867–1919 Sarah Breedlove, the first free child in an enslaved family in Louisiana, was married at age fourteen and widowed by twenty. She found work as a washerwoman in St. Louis, earning less than a dollar a day and being exposed to chemicals so strong that she began balding. Determined to provide an education for her young daughter, she soldiered on. After marrying Charles Joseph Walker, Sarah used knowledge from her brothers in the barber’s trade, as well as her own brief stint as a haircare saleswoman, to develop the Madam C. J. Walker line of products to make Black hair more “manageable” (read: more like white people’s hair). Problematic? Perhaps. But Madam Walker turned her product line into an empire, starting with mail order sales and building up to the salons and beauty schools that made her the first female self-made millionaire in America. She used her success to advance the rights and careers of African American women across the country through tireless work for the NAACP. Her legacy lives on in her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, an Emmy Award–winning news producer and Madam C. J.’s biographer.
CA. 1903–1977 Next time you stuff a delicious chocolate chip cookie into your mouth, you can thank this darling right here (though maybe not with your mouth full). A dietician, food lecturer, and graduate of the delightfully named Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts in Massachusetts, Ruth bought a tourist lodge near Boston with her husband in 1930. Called the Toll House Inn because of its history as a fee-gathering rest stop for travelers, the inn became famous thanks to Ruth’s cooking, especially her desserts. In 1938 she devised a new recipe on her way back from a trip to Egypt, adding a bar of Nestlé semisweet chocolate to an English biscuit-style cookie to create the first chocolate chip cookie. (No, don’t believe the Internet; she didn’t run out of nuts or any such nonsense. She just worked hard and was incredibly clever.) The next year, Ruth sold the rights to the recipe and the Toll House name to Nestlé for $1, though she consulted with the company (for money, and maybe unlimited chocolate) for many years after.
1906–1992 By age seven, Grace Hopper was already dismantling alarm clocks just to see how they worked, and she pretty much never looked back. Earning a PhD in math from Yale by the time she was twenty-eight, Grace ditched academia for a spot in the U.S. Navy Reserve as part of the WAVES program (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She was assigned to work at Harvard on one of the first computers, forming part of the Mark I programming staff. Over the next few years, Grace created the first compiler, a program that translates high-level programming language (like Java) into machine code for computers to read. And she didn’t stop there. To make computers even more programmer friendly, Grace developed COBOL—the ubiquitous and most used programming language of all time—which uses is written words instead of numbers for maximum human accessibility. Amazing Grace, indeed.
1914–2000 You may know of Hedy Lamarr as one of the most iconic sirens of the silver screen, but her amazing globetrotting life took her from Vienna to London to Los Angeles, through movies, marriages, Nazis, secret communications…and wifi. (Didn’t see that coming, did you?) After escaping her fascist arms-manufacturer husband, Hedy went all-in for a career in Hollywood. Even after becoming famous, she preferred to spend her evenings at home, where she often collaborated on inventions with the avant-garde composer George Antheil. After World War II broke out, Hedy did her part by training her sharp innovator’s mind to auto-targeting torpedoes. At the time, an enemy could easily send the weapons off course by broadcasting interference at the same frequency as the signal that controlled them. Hedy thought to randomize the frequencies controlling the torpedoes, a genius idea that George helped implement with his automated player piano. The technology not only worked for torpedoes, but it would also later be used to develop wireless Internet. Thanks, Hedy!