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GoAuto Oddspot: (Wo)man's World

We look back at some of the most innovative women in the world of auto engineering

12 Feb 2022

THE automotive world is a rather lopsided one as far as gender equality is concerned. And although some impressive strides have been made in recent decades, the fact remains that it’s mostly men who design and engineer the cars we drive. Odd, eh?


However, looking back – sometimes way back – we have women to thank for many of the automotive world’s design and engineering breakthroughs. Sadly, many of these innovative pioneers were chastised for their ideas, while others passed away before the merits of their work were recognised.


So, with this article, we attempt to right that wrong and pay tribute to ten of the automotive world’s most visionary female designers and engineers. Here they are, in no particular order:



Katharine Burr Blodgett – Nonreflective Glass


Katharine Burr Blodgett was not only the first female scientist to work for General Electric, but a gifted physicist whose work in the field of surface chemistry pioneered nonreflective glass. The benefits of her breakthrough design were immediately, er, clear to the automotive industry and, by the late 1930s, was in use in vehicles the world over.


June McCarroll – Dividing Lines


Necessity is often the, er, mother of invention and, in the case of June McCarroll, it was the narrow avoidance of a nasty road accident that led to her idea. After swerving out of the path of a truck that was travelling on the wrong side of the road, she patented the concept of a painted line to separate traffic into lanes. It was an immediate success and, by 1924, commonplace around the globe.



Hedy Lamarr – Wi-Fi & Bluetooth


In 1941 – during the midst of WWII – Hedy Lamarr invented a radio guidance system that used frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology to help guide Allied torpedos. It’s a complicated and convoluted science, but one that went on to form the framework of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology we use in cars, homes and offices to this day. 



Dorothy Levitt – Rear-view Mirror


No, she didn’t write the Pearl Jam song, but Dorothy Levitt is credited with inventing the rear-view mirror. In her 1909 book The Woman and the Car, she said that “women should always have a little mirror fixed in a convenient place so that things behind are visible when driving”. Coincidentally, the first rear-view mirrors appeared in cars just five years later…



Dr Gladys West – Satellite Navigation


For 1956, Dr Gladys West was truly ahead of her time. Working as a mathematician for the US Naval Weapons Lab, her programming of inter-ballistic missiles formed the basis of the modern global positioning system (GPS), which underpins the satellite navigation systems fitted to contemporary passenger cars. Dr West is also the only African-American woman on list.



Helen Blair Bartlett – Insulated Spark Plug


In the 1930s, while working for the AC Spark Plug Company, which was a division of General Motors, geologist Helen Blair Bartlett invented the ceramic compound that is used to insulate spark plugs. Her invention made the spark plug safer, more reliable (especially in wet weather), as well as more efficient. The insulated spark plug is still used in cars today.



Margaret Wilcox – Car Heater


The car heater dates to 1883 and is the brainchild of Margaret Wilcox. Ms Wilcox’s design, which is still in use today (albeit in more sophisticated form), entailed drawing warmed water from a car’s engine through piping in order to heat the cabin. Her system warmed the toes of front-seat passengers and kept car windscreens from icing up. I wonder what she’d make of modern quad-zone climate control?



Mary Anderson – Windscreen Wiper


When Mary Anderson invented the hand-operated windscreen wiper in 1903, she was told the device would be “a distraction to drivers” and “had no commercial value”. Nineteen years later, her idea was motorised by another female inventor, Charlotte Bridgwood, and it subsequently appeared as standard equipment on high-end Cadillac models a short while later.



Florence Lawrence – Indicators & Brake Lights


Not only did she have a cool rhyming name, Florence Lawrence invented car-to-car signalling. In the early 1900s, she recognised a need for drivers to signal their intentions of changing direction or slowing/stopping to one another and invented both the rear-mounted stop signal – a precursor of the brake light, as well as the auto-signalling arm – an early take on the modern directional indicator. 



Bertha Benz – Brake Pads


Most of us know Bertha Benz undertook the first long-distance road trip in 1888, but few of us know that her journey inspired the idea of the modern friction brake pad. On her famous 106km cross-country drive, Mrs Benz modified the wooden brakes of her husband’s Model III by adding leather linings to substantially improve their stopping performance. The idea was an immediate success.



If you’ve enjoyed this month’s GoAuto Oddspot, please visit our Facebook page @GoAuto.com.au and join the conversation. We look forward to hearing from you.

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