Who was ‘Lady Edison’, the self-taught inventor who rose to fame creating everyday objects | Science and Health

Self-taught, with a strong innovative outlook and confident business, Beulah Louise Henry was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century — with 110 inventions and 49 patents.

His typewriters, toys, bobbin-less sewing machines, and feminine utensils made Henry a famous and beloved figure in the United States.

Her great imagination and the diversity of her creations earned her the nickname “Lady Edison”, in analogy to the famous American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), responsible for over a thousand patents in his lifetime.

Childhood in North Carolina

Born on September 28, 1887, to a North Carolina family, Henry spent her childhood in a cultural environment filled with art.

Henry’s mother was a direct descendant of Patrick Henry (1736-1799), one of the founding fathers of the United States. — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

From an early age, she had the support of her parents—lawyer and public speaker Walter Henry and housewife Beulah Holden, who was part of the state’s political elite.

In North Carolina, Henry attended the Presbyterian School and Elizabeth College. And since she was a child, she was already inventing. At the age of nine, she created her first prototype: a paper belt, after seeing a man struggling to read the news and carry his groceries at the same time.

Like his later inventions, Henry’s early prototypes were products of his observation and problem solving.

She got her first patent in 1912, at the age of 25, for an ice cream maker that allowed her to make ice cream faster with minimal use of ice — a scarce product when there were no freezers — thanks to a freezing chamber surrounded by an insulating structure.

The device could run manually or with a motor, depending on whether or not electricity was available (electric power was still a novelty), and it replaced the water cooler.

“This first patent reflected all the hallmarks of Beulah Louise Henry’s inventions: versatility, efficiency, economy and ease of use. These qualities would make her prototypes stand out among manufacturers and retailers for decades to come,” wrote the Office of Trademarks and United States Patents (USPTO) in a profile of Henry on the organization’s website.

A year later, she registered a handbag with interchangeable linings so that it could be used in combination with clothes of different shades. With that, Henry wanted to solve the problem faced by many women at the time, when it came to matching clothes with the bag.

This patent was followed by another, for an umbrella adapted to be folded, taking up little space. This same article was later modified to also include a fabric covering that allowed the umbrella to be matched with the clothing.

“The inventor claimed that she had a complete picture of each finished product in her mind, before beginning the difficult task of describing her idea clearly enough to allow a manufacturer to reproduce each object as she envisioned it,” highlights the Hall of Fame. of the United States National Inventors, in which Henry was entered in 2006.

Convincing the Manufacturers

Commercial success was slow to come for Henry.

According to USPTO data, there are no indications that the ice cream machine made money for the inventor — and the umbrella with interchangeable covers to match women’s clothing also seemed to follow suit. Manufacturers and sellers in Memphis, Tennessee, where the family had come to live, showed no interest.

To support their daughter in her career as an inventor, the family moved to New York, where they believed there would be more opportunities to break through the difficult world of patents, especially for a woman.

“Upon arrival, Henry made endless visits to umbrella manufacturers’ offices and grueling walks up filthy flights of stairs to the workshops of various manufacturers, trying to convince a male-dominated industry of the potential of his idea,” says the USPTO. .

Her tenacity led her to keep insisting on the convenience of her umbrella, until she decided to create her own model. With the prototype in hand, she returned to visit one of the manufacturers who, as soon as she had laid eyes on it, agreed that it could be made.

In New York, she had quick access to manufacturers, patent attorneys and retailers, which was very important for her career as an inventor. — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

Henry’s umbrella was a great commercial success, and New York became his permanent residence. She invested the money she earned in a laboratory to turn ideas into reality with the help of mechanics, craftsmen and model designers.

Henry was able to visualize what he wanted to make and explain the concept to engineers and manufacturers, who then built the products.

“I’m not sure whether it’s an inconvenience or an advantage to be as ignorant of mechanics as I am, who don’t know mechanical terms and I’m afraid I make things very difficult for the illustrators to whom I explain my ideas – but in the factories where I’m known, they are extremely patient with me because they seem to have a lot of faith in my inventions”, acknowledged Henry herself.

Single and economically independent, she became one of society’s so-called “new women”, a female archetype originating in the 1890s that rose to prominence after World War I.

“She worked late into the night, danced late into the night and cared little for the worries of her mother’s time, when the ideal place for a middle-class woman was home and not being in plain sight,” she says. the USPTO.

For the most part, the new woman was more fantasy than reality in the 1920s, when men continued to dominate American politics, industry, and culture. But Henry was for real: a renowned inventor in the big city, who managed to make a living by licensing her patents, the fruit of her exceptional creativity.

Toys for kids

In 1924 and 1925, Henry patented improvements to her umbrella and then decided to focus on a new field of research that would make her famous: children’s toys.

His first patent application for a technology related to toys was made in late 1925. It was an internal spring frame designed to bring the ends of stuffed animals back to their original position after the child folded them into different positions. positions.

Henry was childless, so he was inspired by the playgrounds of New York and his childhood memories.

Illustration of the ‘radio doll’ toy, one of the creations of the American inventor Lady Edison. — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

It managed to patent, among other products, a “radio-doll”, which included (totally or partially) inside a radio receiver connected to an antenna. The buttons were on the back and the speaker was at chest height.

Another invention was the “Miss Illusion” doll, which came with blonde and brunette wigs and eyes that changed from blue to brown at the touch of a button.

Beulah Louise Henry’s creative dolls incorporated engineering masterpieces within. — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

“On the outside, these toys adapted to the gender norms of the time and allowed girls to practice the caregiving tasks associated with motherhood. But on the inside, Henry’s toys were masterpieces of engineering that, on the other hand, , continued to be the responsibility of men”, says the USPTO.

office equipment

In the 1930s, Henry focused his innovative creativity on office work.

Between 1932 and 1937, she filed four patents for a device known as a “protograph”. With it, it was possible to simultaneously make up to four mechanically typed copies of the same document, thanks to a second ink ribbon that extended along the length of the typewriter roll.

“As complex machines, typewriters had been designed and improved by men, as only men had access to engineering faculties in the United States. But, as useful office equipment, typewriters were mainly used by women,” she points out. the USPTO.

Until then, copies were made with carbon paper, which ended up getting the typist’s hands dirty. Henry wondered if this couldn’t be improved. And, in response, an accessory appeared that slid an ink ribbon between the pages, without the typist having to get her hands dirty.

‘There is a better way to do this’

Everyone wanted to know the secret to Henry’s success.

“I just look at something and think, ‘There’s a better way to do this’ — and the idea comes to me,” was his response.

Henry invested profits from inventions into her creative process, paying illustrators, model designers, and lawyers who helped her prepare her next patent application. — Photo: Getty Images via BBC

During the 1920s and 1930s, Henry and his team averaged over two patents a year, including a bobbin-less sewing machine to help people working on a large scale.

This led journalists to nickname Henry “Lady Edison”, in reference to the world-famous inventor Thomas A. Edison, who had run an innovation lab in New Jersey, United States, equivalent to a patent factory.

Henry continued his prolific career, except for a single break during World War II. His patents became increasingly complex and creative until his death on February 1, 1973.

“Our modern homes and workplaces reflect their creativity,” says the USPTO.

“Interactive, easy-to-clean children’s toys, increasingly simple and efficient office equipment, and practical, easy-to-modify fashion accessories reflect Henry’s pioneering innovations.”

In January 1962, Beulah Louise Henry gave her last interview to The New York Times. She commented on her reputation as “Lady Edison”:

“Actually, I don’t deserve that title, but a newspaper gave it to me a few years ago, and it stuck.”

“Today, we would define her differently — not as ‘Lady Edison’, a female version of a famous male inventor, but as the visionary who was a leader in all of her areas of innovation. Henry was ambitious, prolific, and succeeded in its own right,” says the USPTO.

– This text was published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-63069131

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