I wonder if you know the names, Nancy Johnson, Maria Beasley or Henrietta Vansittart.  Possibly not, but these are women who were innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs at a time when women were expected to stay at home and keep house.  They all lived in the 19th century and were trailblazers in a time when the fight for woman’s rights was still embryonic.


Nancy Johnson made it possible for that much-loved comfort food to be easily produced by inventing the first hand-cranked ice cream maker in 1843.  Just think of a world without being able to reach for a tub of plain vanilla, chunky monkey or, my current personal favourite ‘Netflix and Chill’d’ a delicious mix of peanut butter ice cream with sweet and salty pretzel and brownie pieces.


Nancy was a woman ahead of her time.  She not only invented this amazing machine but protected it by obtaining a US patent for her “artificial freezer” thus ensuring no one would be able to exploit her work and creativity and that she would benefit from them.  Since she did not have the means to commercialise the product, she was able to sell the rights to her invention for $200, a large amount of money at that time, to someone who could.  At a time when ice boxes, let alone freezers, were still to be created, Nancy’s invention was revolutionary and Nancy a woman to be admired; not only for her invention but for the work she did teaching free slaves and her work with the American Missionary Association.


Maria Beasley, who was born in 1836, was another woman out of step with the society of her time, was very interested in mechanical work, and was a prolific inventor.  She held 15 patents in the US and another 2 in the United Kingdom.


Inspired by her grandfather, a barrel maker, she created a number of barrel-making machines and processes.  By obtaining patents she was able to benefit from her work by licensing the rights to a third party.  She licensed one of her patents to Standard Oil Company for the princely sum of $175 per month.  This was only one small drop in the benefits she derived from her innovation and drive.  She founded the company Beasley Standard Barrel Manufacturing Company in 1884 which was sold just a few years later for $1.4 million – an astronomical sum of money at that time.  The initial money to found the company had come from investors to whom partial rights in her inventions were transferred in return – which her forethought in securing the rights to her inventions through patents allowed her to do.


In a departure from her work in the field of barrels and recognizing the dangers inherent in sea travel, Maria decided to do something about it.  She invented and obtained two patents for improved life rafts, something which has saved numerous lives.  Indeed, her improved life raft design was used on the Titanic.  Again, the fact that she had secured patents for her novel invention allowed her the freedom to develop and commercialise the product as she wanted to without fear of someone else usurping her rights and taking her inventions in a direction she didn’t agree with and profiting from her hard work.


Maria has a diverse portfolio; her other inventions included a number of innovations and improvements for train travel (which again reaped her large financial rewards), an improved footwarmer, a bread-making machine, and a roasting pan.  In 1895 she was presented as the driving force behind a new train


He husband John Q Beasley was a great support to her, even going as far as becoming a patent attorney to assist her in protecting her works.


Henrietta Vansittart was the first woman to hold a patent in the United Kingdom.  While her father held a number of patents in the field of ship propulsion, he didn’t make any significant financial gains or obtain recognition for his work during his lifetime.  After his death, Henrietta studied her father’s work and obtained patents in the United Kingdom and USA relating to improvements to his “screw propeller”. This innovation would allow ships to move faster and smoother due to less vibration thus using less fuel.  In 1880, she was also the first woman to present her work at the London Association of Foreman Engineers and Draughtsman – quite an accolade.


When it comes to women inventors and patent protection, we still have quite a way to go.  Worldwide patents that have at least one female inventor are still in the minority.  A report published by the UK Intellectual Property Office in 2019 entitled ‘Gender profiles in worldwide patenting – An analysis of female inventorship , states that:-


“Historically, females have been underrepresented amongst patent inventors.  Before 1965, the proportion of female inventors was generally between 2% and 3%. Since then, the proportion of female inventors has risen at an accelerating pace, having risen to 6.8% in 1998, and almost doubling since then to reach 12.7% in 2017”.


It is very interesting that, according to the same report, some fields have a greater proportion of female inventors than others.  For example, women contributed to the inventions of approximately half of the patent applications made in the fields of Biotechnology, Pharmaceuticals and Organic Chemistry between 1998-2017.


We are proud to say that three-quarters of MacLachlan & Donaldson’s patent professionals are women; Dr Isabel Meenan, Caroline Stijnen and Hannah Quigley.  We celebrate and encourage women to enter the world of patents and to protect their inventions and innovations.


Nancy, Maria and Henrietta bucked the trends of their days and made a positive difference for women.  They proved without a doubt that women were capable of so much more than the society of the time deemed them to be.  Today we benefit from not only their many inventions but also the determination and strength they showed in rising to the top despite all the obstacles which could have held them down.  On International Woman’s Day 2023, we can look to these women as forerunners and pioneers in the fight for women’s rights and equality.


Are you following in the footsteps of these amazing women?  Have you invented something new or improved an existing product?  Are you an entrepreneur creating new products or services?  Why not make an appointment to speak to one of our attorneys to explore the ways in which you could protect the result of your hard work enabling you to move forward on a secure foundation?


If you want to learn more about patents why not read our article ‘Understanding your Patent’ which can be found at https://maclachlan.ie/understanding-your-patent/


Cherrie Stewart  – Director and Trade Mark Attorney