Putting names and faces to some of the most iconic inventions ever.
Some inventions are so profoundly embedded in our daily lives that we often forget that they were brought into existence by an inventor. Sometimes, these stories are overlooked, and these achievements are underappreciated. Here, we take the opportunity to spotlight some of these stories and the extraordinary individuals who, despite not receiving their due credit, have left an indelible mark on the tapestry of history and innovation.
Monopoly by Elizabeth Magie Phillips
Many associate Charles Darrow, who sold Monopoly to Parker Brothers in 1935, as the creative mind behind the universally cherished game. However, the real inventor of this board game, which has been sold over 275 million times in over 111 countries, is a remarkable woman named Elizabeth Magie Phillips.
Decades before Darrow sold his rendition of Monopoly to Parker Brothers, Phillips envisioned its precursor, The Landlord’s Game, in the early 1900s. The game quickly gained popularity among social circles in Brentwood, Maryland. In 1903, Phillips applied for a patent for her game with the U.S. Patent Office and was granted one the following year.
Originally, the game was not designed to celebrate the accumulation of property and the extraction of steep rents from your opponents—like how we play it today. Rather, her game was intended to protest against and educate people about the monopolistic practices of the time.
Phillips designed The Landlord’s Game to be played in two unique setups: The “Monopoly” and the “Prosperity” versions. The former reflected prevalent economic conditions where the goal was to acquire property, establish industries and monopolize the market, thereby driving others out. The latter, however, espoused more egalitarian principles, advocating cooperating among players to amass collective wealth. Philips intended to demonstrate how the Prosperity model represented an ideal economy, where everyone could mutually prosper, rather than a select few stepping on others to hoard wealth.
Ironically, it was the more combative Monopoly version that ended up gaining greater popularity. This version was what Darrow claimed to have conceived in his basement and subsequently sold to Parker Brothers. It wasn’t until 1936 that Phillips spoke up about her lack of recognition and profit as the true inventor of the game. Although Parker Brothers proceeded to market two additional games from Phillips, she only received posthumous recognition for her role in the invention of Monopoly.
The modern bra by Caresse Crosby
It turns out that frustration can be as much the mother of invention as necessity. Such was the case with 19-year-old Caresse Crosby, born as Mary Phelps Jacob. She got fed up with her rigid corset cover, which impeded her movement and spoiled the look of the gown she was wearing for a debutante ball. Resorting to a needle, thread, a couple of handkerchiefs and ribbons brought by her maid, she fashioned the basis of what would later become the modern bra.
The invention allowed the young socialite such comfort and freedom of movement that friends and acquaintances inquired about the garment and expressed a desire to own something similar. This was when she realized that the design had the potential to make her money. In 1914, she patented her invention under the name “Backless Brassiere”.
For a time, she manufactured and sold her Brassieres through her Fashion Form Brassière Company. However, as she revealed in her autobiography, The Passionate Years, those around her viewed it more as a lucrative hobby than a serious business venture. Furthermore, her second husband, Harry Crosby, a wealthy man, discouraged her from pursuing the venture too seriously. Hence, she only ever produced about a hundred or so pieces and couldn’t ever really get her business off the ground.
Eventually, she sold the brassiere patent to The Warner Brothers Corset Company for a mere US$1,500. The company would go on to make more than US$15 million from the bra patent
over the next thirty years.
Frequency hopping by Hedy Lamarr
Better known for her fame as a successful Hollywood actress, Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor and a significant contributor to the field of wireless communication. One of her notable inventions is the concept of “frequency hopping”, a technique that involves the rapid changing of the frequency of a radio signal over a wide range of channels to defend against eavesdropping.
During World War II, radio guidance systems were susceptible to jamming and interception by enemies. To counter this issue, Lamarr and her friend and co-inventor, George Antheil, a famous composer, developed a “secret communication system”. The device utilized a piano roll, similar to those found in player pianos, to control the frequency hopping pattern. The piano roll contained a sequence of perforations that corresponded to different frequencies. As the roll moved, it would trigger frequency changes in the transmitter and receiver.
In 1941, Lamarr and Antheil patented their invention. Despite donating the patent to the U.S. Navy, Lamarr’s invention wasn’t utilized until the 1950s. All the while, Lamarr did not make a single penny off of her patent. Finally, in 1997, Lamarr and Antheil were honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Now, frequency hopping is a crucial component in modern communication systems and wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular networks.
Computer Programming by Ada Lovelace
Born as Augusta Ada Byron to Anne Byron and famous English poet Gorge Byron in 1815, Ada Lovelace was a foil to her father’s literary brilliance with her own mathematical one. Long before the advent of modern computers, Lovelace was a significant contributor to the field of computer programming.
Lovelace worked closely with senior mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage on his “Analytical Engine”, an early mechanical general-purpose computer design. Lovelace’s most notable insight was the realization that the Analytical Engine had the potential to do more than just numerical calculations. This understanding led to the idea that a general-purpose computer capable of performing a variety of tasks could exist.
In 1842, Lovelace translated an article by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. However, she went above and beyond just translating the work. She included her original observations and findings in the publication as her “Notes”. These notes, which were three times the length of the original article, contained the first published algorithm intended for implementation on a machine. Lovelace also detailed a method for the engine to repeat instructions and described loops and conditionals and even contemplated the potential of computers in art and music generation.
Unfortunately, Babbage’s Analytical Engine was never built during his lifetime, and the legitimacy of Lovelace’s contributions was often questioned due to her gender, leaving her work disregarded for many years.
It was only in the mid-20th century, as the field of computer science and programming advanced, that Lovelace’s work gained due recognition. Today, she is lauded as a pioneer of computer programming and a visionary in her field as well as a symbol of women’s contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The second Tuesday in October is celebrated as “Ada Lovelace Day” to honor and promote the achievements of women in STEM.
As we revisit and honor these forgotten legacies, let’s take some time to draw inspiration from these remarkable individuals and continue to nurture the spirit of invention that shapes our world.
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