By Lauren Fix, The Car Coach
It’s National Women’s History Month, so let’s celebrate the Women who changed automotive history.
Some great features and technologies are in your vehicle because women didn’t like the original method and invented a better solution. The first woman to drive a car was Bertha Benz. She was a pioneer as she took the first road trip in a car.
Bertha Benz was married to Carl Benz and supported him in the invention of the automobile. No one was very interested in his motorcar until Bertha and their sons took a now-famous road trip. Without Carl’s knowledge, Bertha and the boys snuck the car out of Carl’s workshop and took it on the first-long-distance road trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany.
It was a rough ride on roads built for horses and carriages. She had to make several repairs during the journey and even invented the first brake pad, made of leather when the car’s wooden brakes failed. She is the first woman to test drive a car.
Born in 1838, Margaret Wilcox was a trailblazer as she was one of the few female engineers of the time. In 1893, she received a patent for an internal car heater system that we still use today. She engineered a system that pulled the heat from the engine and then redirected the air inside the car’s cabin, which kept its occupants warm. The revolutionary system became the basis of all future car heating systems.
As one of the first female mechanical engineers, Wilcox was responsible for other life-changing inventions such as the baking pan, combined clothes and dishwasher machine, and the home heater.
Mary Anderson & Charlotte Bridgwood
These two women invented the windshield wiper that helps us to drive safely in rain and snow. Mary Anderson noticed that drivers would stop every few blocks to clear off the windscreen when it was snowing. Mary created a hand operating device with a hand-operated handle on the inside and a rubber blade on the outside. A patent was granted to her in 1903. Manufacturers thought this had no value. She never made any money with the patent because it expired before manufacturers realized this was necessary. She later became a successful developer.
In 1917, Charlotte Bridgwood upgraded the wiper to be electrically operated. Her design used rollers instead of blades to clean a windshield.
Both Anderson and Bridgwood did not gain much attention from automakers. Their windshield patents expired, and they never saw any traction for their inventions. Little did they know windshield wipers would eventually become a standard feature in all cars.
In 1922, Cadillac took Anderson’s idea and applied it to its cars as standard, with other manufacturers quickly hopping onto the bandwagon.
At one point in automotive history, brake lights and turn signals didn’t exist until silent-film actress Florence Lawrence saw the need. Drivers would use hand signals or do nothing. Enter Florence Lawrence, who starred in over 300 films and effectively became one of the world’s first-ever movie celebrities. She made a ton of money from her career and was rich enough to purchase a motorcar.
Driving was an activity that Lawrence enjoyed immensely, and it was said that driving gave her a brilliant sense of freedom and independence. She noticed, though, that a few things were missing and decided to invent them!
In 1913, Lawrence invented a device called the Auto Signaling Arm, a special mechanism that worked as a signaling arm to inform other motorists of which direction the driver was headed. This revolutionary invention formed the basis for turning signals, so occupants no longer had to lift their arms left or right to indicate their intended direction.
Lawrence also created a sign that would pop up on the back of the car by pressing the brake pedal. The sign simply read the word, ‘Stop.’ If you can’t guess already, this formed the basis of the brake light!
Dorothy Levitt invented the rear-view mirror. Levitt was the first British female racing driver and a pioneer of women in the automotive sector. She taught Queen Alexandra how to drive alongside the then royal princesses. She even holds the world’s first water speed record.
She wrote a book titled ‘The Woman and the Car,’ which was published in 1909. In the book, she recommended that women drivers should always have a little mirror inside the car while driving. She stressed that it must be placed in a convenient spot so that things behind were visible. That idea formed the basis of the rear-view mirror, and manufacturers quickly caught on as it became a feature a few years later, starting in 1914.
June McCarrol invented road lane separation. She was a nurse who was involved in a pretty scary incident in 1917. While driving her Ford Model T, a truck was approaching in the opposite direction, forcing her to swerve off the road to avoid a nasty crash. She then had an idea that would change the roads forever.
She personally painted a set of white lines across that road. The street is now known as Indio Boulevard in California. The idea was to separate traffic onto each side to avoid head-on incidents.
By 1924, the California Highway Commission adopted her idea, which made the center lines mandatory and proceeded to paint 3,500 miles of road superstation lines across the county. Soon after, every state followed suit for drivers’ safety.
Many believe that in 1906, it was Edward Hines of Michigan who made the first separated lanes. Either way, the roads became much safer.
An engineer and scientist, Katharine Blodgett, invented non-reflective glass and anti-glare windshields. At age 21 in 1921, Blodgett was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in Physics at Cambridge University. In 1938, she developed a liquid soap that, when 44 layers were spread over glass, would allow 99 percent of light to pass through. Her development paved the way for future engineers to create a more durable coating that wouldn’t wipe off.
The famous actress, Hedy Lamarr, was the inventor of Bluetooth features. In the 1940s, she invented a device that blocked enemy ships from interrupting torpedo guidance signals. The device would take the torpedo signals and make them jump from frequency to frequency, making it near impossible for an enemy to locate the message.
It’s this ‘frequency jumping’ technology we find in Bluetooth features in our car that lets us talk on the phone hands-free or stream our favorite music. Her technology can also be found in cell-phones, Wi-Fi and GPS.
Gladys Mae West
Working as a mathematician for the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, Gladys Mae West was the project manager for SEASAT, the first earth-orbiting satellite measuring ocean depths, and was responsible for inventing GPS. Her work on the 1978 SEASAT project helped West and her team build the GEOSAT satellite, creating earth’s surfaces’ computer simulations. Her calculations and work on the SEASAT and GEOSAT helped make the GPS systems in our cars. We’d be lost without her.
Some Extra Fun Facts
In 1898, Genevra Delphine Mudge of New York became the earliest known woman to receive a driver’s license. She was also the first female driver involved in an automobile accident. Her first car was a Waverly electric which she drove on the streets of New York City.
Among other female firsts was Duchesse d Uzes of France, who in 1898 was the first woman to receive a speeding ticket for going 9 mph in a 7 mph zone.
Many more women have had an important role in auto history, and we will over go over that in the next video and post. These women were involved in another video, from racing to auto shows to advertisements.
My Automotive Invention
In 1982, I was working at a brake rebuilding company. The core product was Corvette and Mustang brake rebuilding. We attended many swap meets, and people would tell me they wanted front disc brakes but had drum brakes and hated them, especially driving in the rain. Over the next few months, I created the first drum to disc brake conversion kit for 1965-67 Mustangs to add front disc brakes to early Mustangs. I later created these conversion kits for other older vehicles. These rear disc brake kits are now readily available in the automotive aftermarket for sports and muscle cars.
If you have additional questions, put them in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to answer.
Lauren Fix, The Car Coach®, is a nationally recognized automotive expert, analyst, author, and television host. A trusted car expert, Lauren provides an insider’s perspective on a wide range of automotive topics and aspects, energy, industry, consumer news, and safety issues.
Lauren is the CEO of Automotive Aspects and the Editor-in-Chief of Car Coach Reports, a global automotive news outlet. She is an automotive contributor to national and local television news shows, including Fox News, Fox Business, CNN International, The Weather Channel, Inside Edition, Local Now News, Community Digital News, and more. Lauren also co-hosts a regular show on ABC.com with Paul Brian called “His Turn – Her Turn” and hosts regular radio segments on USA Radio – DayBreak.
Lauren is honored to be inducted into the Women’s Transportation Hall of Fame and a Board Member of the Buffalo Motorcar Museum, and Juror / President for the North American Car, Utility & Truck of the Year Awards.
Check her out on Twitter and Instagram @LaurenFix.