Willard, Frances Elizabeth, 1839-1898. / Occupations for women: a book of practical suggestions for the material advancement, the mental and physical development, and the moral and spiritual uplift of women (1897)
[chapter lv][p. 349]
WOMEN AS INVENTORS.
WOMEN have invented nothing but flat-iron holders and stove lifters and fruit strainers, or other things similar in size and importance," was the remark which recently fell upon my ears.
"So?" I said. "I think you will be willing to withdraw that statement when we have looked a little while at the facts of the case. There are several industries, each of which has added millions to the wealth of nations, and immeasurably to the comfort and well being of individuals, which were made possible by women inventors."
Every large cotton mill owes its existence to the invention of the cotton gin, and the cotton gin was evolved and primarily produced by Catherine Littlefield Greene, wife of the Revolutionary officer, General Greene.
The Greenes moved from Rhode Island to Mulberry Grove, on the Savannah River. The General died soon after the removal, leaving five children and a much embarrassed estate.
It was during the winter of 1792-93 that there was gathered in Mrs. Greene's parlor a little group, whose conversation turned upon the subject which was then largely engrossing the attention of nearly every planter in the South: the toilsome and profit-destroying process of separating cotton and its seeds, and the fortune which would come to him who should invent a machine for the accomplishment of this work. To clear the seeds from a pound of cotton kept one person busy for an entire day. Every evening found the entire family of most planters busy with the uncongenial task of separating [p. 350] seeds from cotton. It was only thus that the staple production of many a plantation could be made to yield maintenance for those who were dependent upon it for support.
Mrs. Greene had taken into her home as boarder, Eli Whitney, a young man who had gone South to teach in a private family, but who, on reaching his destination, had found his place supplied, and had thereupon decided to study law. She proposed to Mr. Whitney that they should construct the much-needed machine. He agreed, and the work was begun, Mr. Whitney proceeding according to Mrs. Greene's idea, and under her immediate and constant supervision.
The first model, which was supplied with wooden teeth, did not perform the work satisfactorily, and Mr. Whitney was about to give up the experiment in despair, when Mrs. Greene suggested the substitution of wire teeth. With this change the machine wrought wonderful results. So perfect was it that all subsequent cotton gins have been, in all essentials, modeled after it. Instead of one pound, three hundred pounds of cotton could now be cleaned in a day, and the South, which had been languishing in poverty and discouragement, or emigrating to more hopeful fields in search of work, took heart of grace, and found employment at home, while all over the world manufactories sprang up, the price of cotton cloth went down, and a complete commercial revolution was inaugurated. Cotton became king because of a woman's thought.
When Mrs. Greene became Mrs. Miller, she took, through her husband, a partnership with Mr. Whitney in the manufactory of gins.
One who realizes how a woman known to be an inventor would have been looked upon in the year of our Lord 1792, and for years afterward, will not marvel that Mrs. Greene did not proclaim herself maker of one of the most wonderful machines of her own or any other age. Had she done so, the ridicule and scorn of every man and woman who knew her name would have been heaped upon her. She would have been looked upon as a monstrosity of unwomanliness and presumption. A Lucy Stone, or a Mary Somerville, or a Mary A. Livermore might have braved all this. That Catherine Greene did not, has deprived her sex of an honor and an example which were lost to it by her age's manner of thought, or lack of thought.
China, a country which supports such an overwhelming number of people, must long ago have been blotted out of existence but for two things--rice and silk.
Silk fabrics were first invented by the Empress Si-lung-chi, between three and four thousand years ago. Cotton was unknown to China till about eight hundred years ago, and the inhabitants of that country were almost universally clothed in silk. Even now more than half the garments of the empire are made from this material.[p. 351]
Silk was introduced to the notice of Europeans during the reign of Alexander the Great, and has since formed a most important article of trade between China and the European nations. Soon after its introduction into Europe a woman of the island of Cos, called Pamphila, invented the art of unweaving it and remanufacturing it into a fabric so fine that it was spoken of as "woven wind," and yet sufficiently firm to allow of its adornment with embroidery and threads of gold, and to retain beautiful colors. Thus we came to have silk gauze.
More than forty years ago it was estimated that France received from silk an annual profit of over seven million dollars, and the value of the raw material each year is over twenty-five million dollars.
The education, the arts, the entire prosperity of the nation hinges on its revenues. This being true, the importance of that which a woman inventor did primarily for China, and through China for all the world, can scarcely be overestimated.
Whenever we see one of the mammoth straw shops which give employment to thousands, and place befitting head-gear within the reach of all, we should, if we knew the history of the straw bonnet's evolution, think that here, and in the myriads of other manufactories scattered throughout the country, we have the concrete results of a woman's invention.
In 1798 Miss Betsey Metcalf, of Providence, R.I., sat herself down to form from straw a bonnet which should resemble the costly imported Dunstable concoction which she had seen displayed in a shop window, the latter species of hat being much too expensive for the usual New England purse. The maiden succeeded well in her task, and at once straw hats begun to be manufactured.
Twelve years after the making of that trial bonnet it was estimated that the value of straw bonnets manufactured annually in Massachusetts alone was over half a million dollars. Massachusetts now produces over six hundred thousand straw hats and bonnets annually, and the city of Philadelphia manufactures over five hundred thousand dollars' worth of straw headgear each year.
The Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry still preserves a fac-simile of this initial straw bonnet originated by Miss Metcalf.
The invention of engraving is claimed by several different nations, but the weight of testimony is in favor of the twins, sixteen years old, Alexander and Isabella Cunio, who lived in Ravenna, Italy, in the thirteenth century. This brother and sister made a series of pictures representing scenes in the life of Alexander the Great, which were executed in relief on blocks of wood, and published by the sister. It is supposed that the engraving was printed by placing the paper on the block and pressing the hands upon it.
One has only to fancy the riches which the want of engraving would have withheld; the copies of great paintings, the illustrations of books and periodicals, [p. 352] the reproductions of geological and ethnological discoveries, the temples and shrines and obelisks and monuments too far afield for poverty to compass a sight of them, but with which the man of humblest means may become acquainted through their many likenesses--one has only to fancy this to realize something of the world's debt of gratitude to Isabella Cunio.
Many countries derive an immense revenue from the manufactory of lace. Lace making is the bread-winning trade of over two hundred thousand women. Valenciennes, Chantilly, Lisle, Alencon blond and Alencon point are all pillow laces--and the art of pillow lace making was invented by Barbara Uttman, of Annaberry, Saxony.
About the time this art was invented the mines were less productive than usual, and the embroidered veils which were made by the peasant women were in less demand. Multitudes were out of employment, and great want prevailed. Lace making provided work for thousands, and brought back comfort and happiness to a whole community. The industry spread rapidly, country after country taking it up. Many cities are famous for the variety of lace which they make. Caen and Bayeux are noted for their silk mantles, veils, scarfs and laces. Who does not know Alencon by its point lace? or Mirecourt for its elegant designs in thread lace? In Devonshire, England, seven or eight thousand girls are employed in making Honiton lace.
Lace is the universal ornament. It beautifies the infant's frock and droops over the bosom of the mother. Priests and popes, kings and courtiers, generals and statesmen have found it fitting to embellish their attire. It adds richness to the apparel of the bride, and is handed down from mother to daughter, from friend to friend as dower most precious.
In our own day and country women have been busy inventing many small articles without which life would be harder and labor more wearisome. From October 1, 1892, to March 1, 1892, over seven hundred patents were granted to women. To Lucretia Lester, Cuba, N.Y., a patent for fire escape; to Margaret Knight for a sole cutting machine; to Mary E. Cook for a railway car stove; to Mary F. Blaisdell for a combined trunk and couch.
Miss Cora L. Turner has invented and patented a boiler especially adapted for securing great economy in storage of fuel, and for this reason likely to be of immense service in vessels, rendering it possible to make longer voyages without renewal of fuel.
Miss Turner's father had during his life endeavored in vain to render this idea practical. It was after his death that the daughter took it up and carried it through to a successful issue.
"How to Obtain Letters Patent" is the title of a book which gives many valuable hints to would-be inventors. This book declares that although great [p. 353] inventions bring more fame, little ones are more profitable. It states that the invention of a certain kind of ink brought its inventor sixty thousand dollars, and a chimney spring was worth fifty thousand dollars annually to its originator. We hear of millions being made by the invention of a shoe clasp, an envelope fastener, and many another equally small and seemingly insignificant things; and these are the kind of articles that women are constantly evolving.
In a paper entitled "How to Invent," in the book referred to, the author says:
"The readiest way to invent is to keep thinking. Inventors should cultivate habits of observation. Examine things about and see how they are made, and how improved."
If "genius is eternal patience" as has been declared, then women should be successful as inventors, for nothing requires more patience than invention. The dreaming tendencies of woman, also, should be a factor in her success as an inventor. Nothing is ever mentally discovered in the noise; everything photographs itself on the imagination "in the silence." Edison says that "women have more fine sense about machinery in one minute than most men have in their whole existence." If one has "fine sense" about one delicate thing why not about others?
The day is probably not far distant when we shall see as many important inventions by women as by men. While it is true of all important callings that "there is always room at the top," it is particularly true of invention, for even our male Morses and Edisons and Wattses do not by any means jostle each other.[p. 354]
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