Celebrating Women Inventors in Automotive History

Celebrating Women Inventors in Automotive History

In what has often been considered a masculine industry, it’s important to remember that women have also played an important part in the automotive industry’s rich history of innovation.  To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating 5 female inspirational inventors from the last 150 years.  

Bertha Benz – pioneer and inventor of the brake lining 

Early one summer morning in 1888, Bertha set off to make the 65-mile journey from Mannheim to Pforzheimin, Germany in her husband’s car. The car was the world’s first and was invented by her husband Karl Benz who was convinced it wasn’t ready for the open road, but Bertha believed otherwise and believed the world was ready for a woman to set a new course. 

Running out of petrol mid-journey, Bertha was undeterred and stopped to purchase ligroin (a petroleum-based solvent) from a pharmacy in Wiesloch which is now considered the first petrol station in history. Similarly, when the engine overheated, Bertha stopped and collected water from a ditch to cool it and when the fuel line became blocked, she cleaned it with her hat pin. 

Bertha is also the inventor of the brake lining. During the trip, the brake pads became worn, so she used her garter as a temporary measure to insulate them until she was able to reach a cobbler, who she paid to cover the brake shoes in leather. 

Margaret Wilcox - inventor of the car heater

On the 28th of November 1893, Margaret Wilcox patented her solution to the often cold, open-air driving which was enjoyed by early drivers of the motor car. The solution was the world’s first in-car heating system. 

The idea of the heater was considered luxurious, even once motorcars were developed with enclosed bodywork and glass windows, but eventually, carmakers warmed to the idea. In 1929, the Ford Model A became the first vehicle to offer in-car heating. 

As well as this being a turning point in history (because quite frankly, who wants to forgo in-car heating during winter months?) this was a turning point for Margaret herself. This was the first design that had been patented in her own name rather than her husband’s, a practice which had previously been the law in the United States.

Dorothee Pullinger – engineer and inventor of the car designed for women, built by women

Having been refused entry to the Institution of Automobile Engineers on the grounds that “the word person means a man and not a woman”, Dorothee became manager of Galloway Motors, a car factory run by a female workforce that adopted the colours of the suffragettes, by the early 1920s. 

Galloway Motors had an onsite engineering college, offering women apprenticeships over the course of 3 years, as opposed to the usual 5 years for men, with the belief women were faster learners. 

With gear levers placed inside of the car rather than outside to make them easier to reach, added storage space, a smaller steering wheel and a lower dashboard, Dorothee designed and built the Galloway – the world’s first car developed specifically for women. 

Mary Anderson – inventor of the windscreen wiper

Having full-functioning windscreen wipers is an essential part of car maintenance and safety. We all know that if you don’t have decent wipers, your car will not pass its MOT, and worse, you could be placed in a dangerous situation should your visibility be decreased. This makes Mary Anderson’s story even more poignant as a woman in automotive history. 

Mary recognised the need for a windscreen wiper for assisting with clearing ice from the windscreen, to save the driver from having to open a window and chilling the cabin in the process. 

She invented a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade which would move back and forth across the window to clear it. The design was patented in 1903 but Mary’s invention was not used in car manufacturing straight away as a wiper was considered too distracting for drivers.

Mary did not profit from the invention, which is rather frustrating considering our reliance upon this device for all vehicles on the road. 

Helen Clifford – London's first female bus mechanic 

In 1983, Helen qualified as London Transport’s first female bus mechanic after completing a course at West Ham garage at the age of 18. 

Up until this pivotal moment in history, there had only been two brief periods where women were called upon to take responsibility for a so-called man’s duty in stations, depots, garages and engineering works, namely during the first and second world wars. 

Not only was Helen a bus mechanic, but also qualified as a bus driver. This role was not opened to women until 1974. 

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