Women Inventors Grab Spotlight in National Exhibit

SWE-sponsored national exhibit draws attention to six women inventors.

Women continue to influence all aspects of society through their groundbreaking research and inventions. What better place to draw attention to their contributions than in the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum (NIHF) housed in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, Virginia. The achievements of six women were featured in a theme-based poster exhibit designed to inspire the next generation of women in STEM fields. Titled “Making Change: Structures, Systems, and Societies,” the exhibit features women whose work has had an extraordinary impact on the structures and systems of science and society.

The hanging life-size posters positioned side by side on a truss bear vibrant images and brief biographies of each woman and greet staff and visitors as they enter the atrium to do business in the USPTO or swing by the adjoining museum. The tribute is the result of collaboration between SWE and the NIHF, a not-for-profit organization that recognizes individual engineers and inventors who hold U.S. patents of significant technology.

The partnership began in 2017 when Beatrice Hicks was inducted into the NIHF for her patented gas density switch, said Troy Eller English, SWE archivist. “I provided images and artifacts from SWE’s archives for her exhibit case at the hall that year. NIHF then asked SWE to partner on a Women’s History Month exhibit in 2018. This is the fifth year SWE has sponsored the WHM exhibit (2018-2020, 2022-2023).”

“Because of our partnership with SWE on this exhibit, we wanted to specifically focus on women in engineering,” said Sophia Johnson, museum manager. “We wanted the truss to represent members of SWE as well as NIHF inductees, so that gave us a great group of women to choose from.”

“Originally, this year’s exhibit was going to focus on early SWE members with patents, but the NIHF exhibit team and I decided the result would be a little too homogeneous to be inspirational to a diverse population,” said Eller English. “We altered the theme and featured three early SWE members, and three women whose work is more recent, and who come from underrepresented populations in the U.S.” Among the six, one is a recent SWE Achievement Award recipient and two are NIHF inductees not otherwise affiliated with SWE, she said.

As in previous years, SWE’s archives and publications departments partnered with the NIHF creative and exhibits teams to select themes and honorees for the exhibit, provide research and photographs of the honorees, help write and edit the exhibit text, and provide feedback on the design.

“The color scheme, graphics, fonts — they were all very intentional choices,” Johnson said. “And because of all the work put into making this exhibit so visually stunning, we figured the best place to display them was right in the center of the USPTO Madison building, which is a public space, so anyone visiting the patent office would be able to appreciate it.”

Featured this year

E’lise Harmon, a chemist and physicist, developed and patented a process to produce printed circuitry and printed circuit components using a hot die stamp method to infuse silver conductors on polymerized thermoplastic and thermosetting base materials. Harmon received the SWE Achievement Award in 1956.

Laurence Pellier, a chemical engineer and metallurgist, developed techniques and applications in electron microscopy. She held a U.S. patent for the gold plating of surgical needles. She is a charter member of SWE and the 1962 Achievement Award recipient.

Jayshree Seth, Ph.D., is the first woman engineer to attain the position of corporate scientist at 3M, the highest technical level within the company. In 2018, she also was named the company’s first chief science advocate. She has numerous patents and was the 2020 SWE Achievement Award recipient.

Josephine Webb worked on the electrical grids for the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams while serving as a design engineer at Westinghouse Electric Corp. She is a SWE member and a patent holder in oil circuit breaker contact design.

Sumita Mitra, Ph.D., an NIHF inductee and chemist at 3M Oral Care, invented the first dental filling material to include nanoparticles. This composite filling material, Filtek Supreme Universal Restorative, has been used in more than 1 billion restorations worldwide since its initial launch. Dr. Mitra holds 100 U.S. patents.

Margaret Wu, Ph.D., industrial chemist and NIHF inductee, revolutionized how automobile and industrial lubricants are designed and synthesized, contributing to energy-efficient products with better machine protection and reduced waste oil. Dr. Wu holds more than 100 U.S. patents.

Eller English hopes that people who viewed the exhibit walked away with the understanding “ultimately, that engineering is a diverse and creative field. The exhibit designs over the years have helped to convey the creativity of invention and engineering. We hope it provides inspiration and provokes thoughtful reflection about who has been and can be an inventor.”

Johnson agreed: “We also feel that presenting female inventors as role models is important to building confidence in young women and showing them that STEM is a possible career choice. So, anything we can do to bring public awareness to their contributions is our main goal.”

The museum has inducted 11 SWE-affiliated women, the first being Yvonne Brill, F.SWE, a rocket and jet propulsion engineer, inducted in 2010, and the most recent, electrical engineer Lynn Conway, inducted in 2023.