Article: Collecting Women's Ingenuity :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Fred Amram and Sandra Brick

Women's History Month is an appropriate time to explore how we have honored--or neglected--women inventors. In April 1890, on the occasion of the Patent Office's centennial, the commissioner of patents received a petition requesting "that a room be set aside in the present Patent Office, to be used exclusively for the benefit of Woman Inventors, that there be exhibited models of the woman inventors only, that the same be properly labeled, giving full particulars of each invention." It took 100 years before that petition request was fulfilled!

For its bicentennial celebration in 1990 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) commissioned a museum exhibition to honor women inventors. A Woman's Place Is in the Patent Office featured hundreds of artifacts reflecting the patented inventions by women as well as a mini-history of women who worked as clerks and patent examiners--including Clara Barton, the first woman in the federal government's employ who earned equal pay for equal work. After its initial showing at the USPTO, the exhibition traveled to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

At that time we determined to build our nascent accumulation of artifacts and ephemera into a disciplined collection documenting the hardships and successes of American women inventors. Like most serious collectors, we became obsessed with the task, doing endless research and attending auctions as often as possible. In the process of scouring every corner of the country we met many inventors who agreed to donate not only the products of their ingenuity, but more important, their prototypes and papers. Future scholars would be able to see how the invention emerged from an idea and what marketing and manufacturing obstacles these inventors faced. Our collection grew to include over 800 artifacts and thousands of slides and photos as well as boxes of ephemera and historical papers.

The Amram/Brick Women Inventors Collection provides an opportunity to preserve history, to exhibit artifacts that have aesthetic and social import, to educate youngsters and adults in diverse settings, and to provide research opportunities for others interested in women's ingenuity. The collection includes, for example, several versions of the "Tommy Iron" as well as a file of documentation about the invention.

That story begins in 1921 when Frederick Kern was granted a design patent for a milliner's iron. In 1922, he earned two utility patents for variations of the same invention. Bertha Thompson was enraged. She had hired Kern as her patent agent and the cad had stolen her profitable idea. During litigation Thompson's colleagues spoke on her behalf, arguing that they had seen her invention developing and were using the tool. They had nicknamed the product a Tommy Iron in honor of the true inventor. Kern was required to make a public apology and include that apology in every box containing the iron. Subsequently, the Tommy Iron name was trademarked.

We recently donated our collection to the Hagley Museum and Library so that students, educators, and scholars can access the history that the collection represents and artifacts can be on display to inspire future women inventors and the men with whom they work. For more information, send a request to Hagley.

At the outset of the 20th century less than 1 percent of U.S. patents granted annually included the name of a woman. While that number has grown, currently only about 12 percent of U.S. patents are granted to women each year. But like the 1890 petitioners, we do not want to bemoan the fact that almost 90 percent of patents do not include the name of a woman. We want to applaud and celebrate the progress made and to ensure that opportunities for innovation and inspiration are available.

Fred Amram, University of Minnesota Morse Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Creativity and Communication, was curator of A Woman's Place Is in the Patent Office and artist Sandra Brick was the designer.

From Prototype, March 2009

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