All posts by Deborah Jaffe

About Deborah Jaffe

Deborah Jaffé is a cultural and design historian and the author of Inegnious Women (2003). She has special interests in the history of industrial design, technology and innovation; childhood, play and toys; memory studies and souvenirs. Her other published books include The History of Toys and Victoria - a celebration and she is the editor of NewcomenLinks, for Newcomen, the International Society for the History of Engineering and Technology. More at:

A medium and her patent: Judith Blanche Dwyer

Stephen van Dulken writes:

For some reason quite a number of woman patent holders were involved in spiritualism. One such is Judith Blanche Dwyer. I came across her with her British patent 1899/15879

[and show drawing, which is is at]

She said that she was of 917, Market Street, San Francisco, medium. British patents, unlike American patents at the time, normally gave a full address and often an occupation. The invention is for a bottle which, once emptied, cannot be stopped up again. It was to prevent unhygienic reuse of bottles by unscrupulous merchants. It was a common subject among inventors in late Victorian times, including by women. I thirsted to know more about this woman. To me the invention is only half the story. As I normally do, I checked for “equivalents” – the same invention published in other patent systems. Besides showing their business strategy, this can give extra information. American patents at the time, for example, usually cited the citizenship of the inventor – very helpful in a cosmopolitan city such as San Francisco.

I first looked on Google and found, on a shipping site ,a list of “alien immigrants” on the SS Mariposa, sailing from Auckland 3 November 1894. She was 27, single, nurse, English, going to San Francisco. Previously resident in Sydney, never been to USA, not going to join relatives. Arrived 22 Nov 1894. “English” merely meant her ethnic group, which turned out to only be her mother’s side, her father being born in Ireland. I then turned to the priced Ancestry genealogy database and the free California newspaper database . Between them they revealed a lot — but, as always, not quite enough to satisfy my curiosity.

The 1900 US census gives her at 997 Market Street, San Francisco as a lodger. She was Judith B. Dwyer, 32, born Australia, who had arrived in the USA in 1894. Her occupation was as a medium. Both her unusual name and the occupation were very helpful, and her age matched the shipping record. Her first appearance in the San Francisco Call is on 18 Dec 1898, with a full article by “Mrs Judith B. Dwyer, spiritual reader”. The Mrs is presumably honorific, such as for couturiers. It makes several predictions: an attempt will be made on the life of President McKinley in May 1899 [he was assassinated, but in September 1901], Queen Victoria will live for 7 years [it was just over two], in 1899 Germany and the USA will be engaged in a war [true, but not until 1917]. The same newspaper had an advertisement by her in the 13 August 1899 issue, saying she graduated from the ‘highest professor in occultism.” She charged $1, with a reduction available for the poor. Best of all, there is a sensational account in the 22 October 1899 issue.——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-%22Ella+P.+Reed%22——-1

The same newspaper had an article (calling her Miss, clairvoyant and medium) about an alleged plot to murder her with a box of candy. It had been delivered anonymously to the boarding house on Market Street where she lived. Fortunately, as she and the landlady’s daughter, Ella, were about to taste it they felt warned not to. They broke it open, and saw blue chunks in it. I quote: ‘“It is bluestone [a poison]”, moaned Miss Dwyer. “Me hated rival has been spoiled by me faithful spirit.”’

Police put no credence in the story, and neither apparently did the newspaper, with the subtitle “Scenes and actors in a candy comedy”. Lurid drawings of her and Ella illustrated the top of the article. So what happened to Judith ? There, as far as I know, the trail ends.


Future historians – beware of social media!

One of the Ingenious Women (published 2003, Sutton UK) I have written about is Clara Louisa Wells. So it was good to see she had acquired a Wikipedia page – even though it has some inaccuracies. However, what is surprising is that the Wikipedia entry has automatically generated a Facebook page for Clara, even though she died in 1925.  The FB status is Author and the short biography does relate to her. The numerous colour images on the page are clearly of people unrelated to her.  So, one wonders what will future historians make of all this, especially if they are not aware of the history of social media. One can only imagine the inaccuracies that might ensue.

Microsoft Word - Document8To put the record straight: Clara Louisa Wells was a travel writer, inventor and political activist who was born in Maine, USA in 1839 and was descended from established New England families. In her late 30s she arrived in Europe and spent the rest of her life in Italy and the South of France dying in Gerona, Spain in 1925.  She was a prolific writer of guidebooks (7 published), an inventor of engineering and technology based schemes (11 patents) and a petitioner of governments (2). The detailed guidebooks include: The Alban Hills – Frascati (1878); The Amphitheatres of Ancient Rome (1883); The Arrondissement of Privas in the Department of Ardeche, France (1906), Valence (1906), Grasse (1917) and Puget-Theniers (1922). Her inventions include patents for: Fresh Water from Seawater (1887); Aerial Locomotion (1895, 1909) and Vehicles to Absorb Noxious Gases (1916). She petitioned governments on the eradication of cholera.  She did not set up a Facebook page – future historians beware!

Illustration: One of the 1897 drawings from Clara Louisa Wells’ patent diagram for Exploring Cold and Hot Regions, (Exploring Aerial Locomotion). It shows the raised railway track, that would carry the carriages with balloons and birds on top to provide locomotion. There is a man in a carriage and the route map from Naples north through Europe and across the Atlantic to N America. Patent GB1897/15850


Rachel Parsons

Why is it  that, all too often, one person’s achievements dominates a family? This is possibly the case of Rachel Parsons whose family was dominated by her father’s achievements. He was a great engineer in the North East of England and at his firm, Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company, he  pioneered the building of the ship The Turbinia. Arguably, Rachel’s achievement was great and should not be overlooked.

Rachel Parsons was born in 1885 and during her childhood was fascinated by science and her father’s engineering pursuits. She sailed with him on Turbinia on  its early voyages and was determined to have a career in the exciting, heavy engineering industries of Tyneside. She was also one of that first wave of women to go to Cambridge University where she was one of only three to study mechanical sciences. Despite her academic achievement and experience she never received her degree from Cambridge because, at that time, women were barred from doing so.

Girls Coming to Tech!

GIRLS COMING TO TECH! A History of American Engineering Education for Women is the culmination to the research undertaken by Amy Sue Bix, who  Associate Professor in the Department of History at Iowa State University. Beginning in the late 1800s, it covers the years of WWII and up to the present. It is packed with information – hard research and anecdotal evidence. It covers those women, like Emily Roebling, whose husbands might have been taken ill or died, so that their wives had to take over a business. She completed his work on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. There is Edith Griswold who , in 1880, took a course in engineering in New York so she could set up her own company drafting the drawings for patent applications. Then there are all those women who helped with the war effort – as mechanics on the production lines in munitions factories and the qualified engineers who worked on the design of the machines of war. These women included some who worked on the Manhattan Project. Hollywood grabbed and glamorised  Rosie the Riveter’s  image. But immediately after the war women were pushed out of the work roles and all the freedoms, back home, their previous lives deemed unfeminine. Gradually,  women have been accepted onto engineering courses, but even in the 1970s they encountered sexism and discrimination. Some claimed that women’s voices should not be heard in the lab. Even so, about 25% of undergraduate engineers in the USA are women. No doubt it is a similar number in the UK.

GIRLS COMING TO TECH! A History of American Engineering Education for Women.

Amy Sue Bix. MIT Press 2013. ISBN 978-0-262-01954-5 HB. 360pp


Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar

Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar, died on 20 June at the age of 90. She was a qualified chemical engineer when she joined a research team at DuPont in 1946. The company was at the forefront of the development of new polymers and plastic materials. Kwolek was tasked with researching the uses of polymers and low temperature condensation processes to develop new fibres strong enough to reinforce car tyres.  In her research she discovered an unusual molecular formation in the polymer she was developing. Initially, her peers dismissed the irregularity, but she persevered and found that this new material was much stronger than steel. This was patented in 1963 as ‘Fluorine Containing Aromatic Polycarbonamides’ as a ‘novel and useful class of polycarbonamides’.  From the beginning these fibres were able to withstand great extremes of heat and cold and were developed into Kevlar, the very strong, fireproof, yet lightweight, and bulletproof fabric. Today we take bulletproof vests worn by the police and combat forces for granted, these are made from Kwolek’s Kevlar and one million are now in existence around the world. They have been refined and styled to fit different sizes and tailored for men and women and Kevlar is also used  in fire-fighters’ boots, bulletproof helmets, fibre optic cables, car braking systems and skis as well as in space vehicles and for landings on Mars. During her career, Stephanie Kwolek was involved in 28 patents for Dupont, some as the outright inventor and many as part of a research team. She seems to have been modest about her achievements, but there is no doubt that her attention to detail created something extraordinary.

Ingenious Women – the book


Ingenious Women, researched and written by Deborah Jaffé, was published in 2003. In this fascinating book, she introduces the women who saw themselves as inventors, electricians, engineers, milliners, nurses, motorcar drivers, gentlewomen, spinsters, wives or duchesses, and gives them their rightful title of ‘ingenious women’. This hidden history begins in 1637 with Amye Everard Ball, the first English woman patent-holder and ends with Maria Montessori’s educational equipment in 1914. Hundreds of women are included like: Margaret Knight,  an engineer  who won a lengthy court battle with her employer to retain ownership of one of her patents;  the widowed Martha Coston who perfected her late husband’s idea for signal flares at sea;  Madame Roxey Caplan , the corsetiere, who was awarded the prize medal as ‘Manufacturer, Designer and Inventor’ at the Great Exhibition in 1851 for her corsetry designs and Elizabeth Barnston Parnell who patented methods to extract precious metals from rock. The book ends in 1914 and the outbreak of the World War I which was a watershed in women’s lives but, as this book shows, their innovative ideas had already been making an impact on all our lives for nearly 300 years.More information and to order a copy at: