Beulah Henry: “I invent because I cannot help it”
Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which “aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and math by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.”
Prolific inventor Beulah Louise Henry (1887-1973), a self-taught synesthete engineer from North Carolina, received 49 patents but is credited with over 100 inventions. Her inventions were at first improvements on household technologies–her first patent was for a vacuum-sealed ice cream freezer, in 1912–but she soon became an entrepreneur and consultant.
By the mid-1920s she was living in New York and running a company to manufacture umbrellas and parasols of her own design, including an umbrella with swappable snap-on covers. She invented business machine improvements for typewriters (aligning feeds for automatic typewriters, for instance) and cash registers, consulting for companies such as Mergenthaler Linotype. Henry was also involved in sewing machine innovations. She also consulted and made unique products for doll and toy companies.
Henry was a savvy inventor and businesswoman; the press dubbed her “Lady Edison.” Like Edison, she surrounded herself with a handpicked team to do research and development on her products, and help translate her designs into manufactured products. It seems like she had an unusually excellent sense of spatial reasoning and became skilled in directing how her products should be machined. She is one of only a few women in the early 20th C to become a professional inventor who was both recognized for her work and was able to profit from it.
Autumn Stanley quotes Henry as saying that all one needs for inventing “is time, space and freedom.” (Mothers and Daughters of Invention, 422.) Here’s wishing those to the women inventors of the future.