All posts by Stephen van Dulken

Mildred Blakey: a male or female inventor ?

Mildred Blakey patented about 18 inventions between 1867 and 1905 from, mainly, Pennsylvania addresses but also Ohio. They were mostly on metal tubing and gas powered engines. Clearly, Blakey was quite prolific.

Autumn Stanley on page 343 of her “Mothers and daughters of invention”, published in 1993, acknowledges Mildred as being male. She had listed her on page 137 of “Women, aging and ageism”, 1990, edited by Evelyn Rosenthal, in an earlier version of the table, in a table of prolific woman inventors. I certainly would have assumed that Mildred was a woman although the reference to “himself” in e.g. his US134349, if spotted, might have given reason to pause.

I’ve just noticed, also, that at the bottom right of the patent page given below we are told that the attorney, Christy, is “his atty.”, not “her atty.” That was luck. Admittedly, Helen Blanchard’s US496929 says on the initial page “her attorneys” — I wonder if anyone has investigated this niche area ? How common was it for the gender to be stated ?

US patent 166449 by Mildred Blakey

It would be an awful job if every “woman” with more than a few patents had to be investigated in the census to see if he/she was listed as male or female. In this case, the census returns do state that Mildred was a man, who married twice, and had at least five children. They also state that he was born in England in 1842 and immigrated in 1860 (fas stated for instance in the 1900 census for Ashtabula county, Ohio). By the 1880 census he had become manager of a tube mill in Etna, PA.

Mildred Blakey is a rare name to put it mildly and the only candidate who fits seems to be in the April 1861 census for Leeds, Yorkshire, aged 19, born in Bradford, and a model maker. He was a boarder in a public house.

Bradford parish church records the baptism on the 20 October 1841 of Mildred Blakey, son to Jobson, wool comber, and Mary Ann Blakey, of Bowling Lane He had been born 22 September 1841. A wool comber was someone who prepared wool to be spun — Mildred did well in those days to rise from his humble origins.

His year of birth was incorrectly given as 1842 when it was 1841, and his date of immigration was not 1860 as he was in the British census in April 1861. It shows that you have to be careful in just accepting “facts” that people state, just as you have to be careful in assuming that someone with a woman’s name is really just that.

I have already posted on Bernice Noyes who also might appear to be a woman but who proved to be a man.

Finding women in French patents, 1791-1861

The French patents before 1902, when they start to appear on the free Espacenet database, are very hard to search.

I have traditionally used a variety of tools at the British Library: annual name indexes which do not lead provide a way to the actual publications, granted patents that were never published as the owners failed to pay a fee a year later (the original ought to be at Paris), a subject index in English to 1876 which is arranged by subject title with no cross references — so you have to guess at the heading. The actual publication volumes generally have several to a year, each arranged by subject, and the drawings are at the end with grey outlines…

Recently INPI, the French Patent Office, began putting data on a database called Brevets francais du 19e siecle.  It is all in French. , and coverage is from 1791 to 1855, though I’ve noticed material to 1861. In the results lists, there should always be a “notice” with bibliographic details, and often there is a “dossier” which is a reproduction of a document. This always seems to be handwritten, and is sometimes at least just the formal grant of a patent.

The help notes state that you can put in the “Desposant” field any  of the words madame, madamoiselle or veuve [widow] to find women. Presumably this was noted at the time by the authorities.

There are at present 433 entries for madame, 294 for madamoiselle, and 282 for veuve, making 1009 in all. There are currently 53,528 entries. This suggests 1.8% are by women, a high number for the period. Certainly in the 1850s and 1860s the number of Frenchwomen taking out British patents was high, perhaps even exceeding those taken out by the British (I haven’t fully checked out that period yet). 

However, the field includes “mandataire”, some sort of patent attorney, and there was at least Madame Rabatel with 7 entries in that role. So the actual numbers are somewhat lower.

It is possible to search by profession. Hence a request for “artiste”, run against veuve, gave 5 hits.

My impression is the vast majority of the women, and perhaps the man as well, had French addresses (they could still be say Americans — Robert Fulton has four patents in there, from Paris addresses.

Finally, the help notes strongly recommend using the index which is available, as the little A/B button, to the right of each field (except date) in the advanced mode.

I must admit I found the database a little clunky, but at least it provides a possible way in. It is still a terror to try to get from data found there to any publication in the long series kept at the British Library. There certainly isn’t anything comparable for the early US or UK material. Plans are to eventually go on to 1902.

Two Suffragette registered designs

I was looking through the British registered design entries for 1914, as listed in the patents journal, and found two by the Suffragettes.

They were applied for on the 24 November 1914 by the East London Federation of Suffragettes at 400 Old Ford Road, Bow, and were registered as 644045 and 644046. They were registered in Class XVI, which is simply for miscellaneous goods. No title was provided (this was the practice until the 1930s). Hence I had no idea what the designs looked like or were for.

The archives for the British registered designs are in the National Archives (TNA), and there is a leaflet explaining how to search them, How to find a registered design 1839-1991. The big difference between British registered designs and the American Design Patents is that the latter are published as proper documents and can be found, and to some degree searched, online. It is a big shame as the British registered designs are so numerous, in the millions.

I visited the TNA and ordered up BT52/675, which is the box that contains a single sheet for each of these designs. Again no title, just photos of the designs. Each sheet has two photos, of different profiles, and in each case I have taken an image of the top appearance. Here is 644045.


And here is 644046.


We can only guess at their purpose. They are clearly dolls, one female and the other male.

I wonder if they were meant to be used for, say, a mimed play where it is shown that the male doll represents a child who will grow up to be a voter, while for no good reason his sister will grow into a disenfranchised woman ? If anyone has any information about their intended use I would be glad to hear about it. As registered designs were meant to prevent anyone else using a certain look they seem odd things to register — they could have used any dolls for the purpose.

In any case, the Suffragette campaign soon came to a halt. It was decided to call a  truce during World War I, and in 1917 — probably because of the big effort made by so many women in war work, and their substituting in many jobs for men on active service — votes for women over the age of 30 was voted through Parliament, extended to be on a par with men to the age of 21 in 1928.

Maiden surnames of women inventors

The surnames of women are on the whole more likely to change than men (yes, I know some men change their names), if only because of marriage. If the maiden surname is known, it makes identifying them so much easier. American patents rarely indicate marital status. The very occasional “Mrs” appears in the Victorian period, while words like “spinster” are very exceptional.

In British patents, on the other hand, it was fairly common to give some indication until about 1922 when it suddenly ended. Occasionally “wife of” is used, and even the husband’s occupation is sometimes given. Perhaps 25% of the 3,300 entries in my database of British patents with a woman’s name on them to 1899 give some indication of marital status, with “married” and “Mrs” the most common, of course, and some 230 widows, some of whom name their deceased husbands. While we may deplore their “I am an appendage of my husband” attitude, we are at least given useful data to help trace them further in other sources. A small number, perhaps 30, state that they are “nee” their maiden surname, and a handful of widows say the same. They are usually foreign residents, and that is a clue.

Due to legal reasons, I imagine, the maiden surnames of women are much more likely to be given in patents from continental Europe. I use the Espacenet database to find this, normally for about 1900 onwards, as it is almost impossible to trace names before then (the UK is an exception, with coverage beginning in early 1893).

For example, take Bertha Stahlecker of Cannstadt, Germany, who applied in 1910 with her GB1910/01230 for a British patent for a door fastening and signal.  She simply states that she is a married woman. Espacenet can be used to trace three other patents for the same invention — in France, Switzerland and Austria. There is probably a German patent as well but it does not show up as name data is very awkward for Germany. All three give her maiden name as Hoschele, as at the time it was normal for them to give such information, while in the UK it was exceptional. For example, see FR411416 This can also help with British or American inventors if they take out a patent in one of those countries.

Take Harriet Ruth Tracy.  She took out many patents, for sewing machines and elevators, at first in Staten Island and later in England. Espacenet gives 17 patents for her of which only one, French patent 376042 in 1907, states that she is “nee Brisbane”. Her maiden surname enabled me to be sure that the woman in England and that in America was the same woman when I later researched her in the records held by Ancestry . I will write about her in more detail another time.

Bernice Noyes — an important woman inventor ?

When identifying and listing women inventors in patents, it is normal to rely on the forenames. Even in the late 19th century it was very unusual for American patents to state “Mrs”, and virtually unheard of for words like “spinster” or “married” to be used. British patents until the mid 1920s were more likely to give such indications (maybe 25% or more, I haven’t quantified it).

The problem with forenames is that some are not unambigiously feminine. “Mary” may sound female, but Michael Mary Brophy, with 24 British patents between 1894 and 1928, is presumably a man . Two French patents in his name give him as M., Monsieur, rather than Mme. or Mlle. (they did not always get the designation right, but normally did so). “Marie” is commonly used in a similar fashion by Frenchmen.

I have noticed in Autumn Stanley’s book Mothers and daughters of invention that she treats a British inventor with the first name Bertie as a woman. In the UK Bertie is almost exclusively used by men, and when I checked the patents found that he described himself as a gentleman. Many American men do use forenames that to British ears sound female (John Wayne was born Marion, after all, and a man who won a Navy Cross at Pearl Harbor was named Doris). How, in the absence of other evidence, can you assume the gender of an inventor ?

There is the case of Bernice J. Noyes of Boston, MA who from 1887 and 1917 was responsible for 24 patents, mainly in electrical signalling. Many can be found in Google Patents. As a woman Noyes would count as one of the most prolific inventors ever, but the difficulty is that Bernice was actually a man.

I guessed this might be so when on Google Books I came across a reference to Noyes as a patent solicitor, a trade which at the time I would assume to be entirely, or almost so, male. I had a look at the census returns for Boston on and found him described as M,  a man, married to Florence, and termed a patent solicitor. Here, at least, I had hard evidence that Bernice was a man. It is hardly feasible to look each person up.

British women inventors

A lot of research has been done on women inventors in the USA, but little on those in the UK.

Until a year ago I worked as a patent specialist at the British Library. I developed an interest in women inventors due to a request for help by Deborah Jaffe. So, as you do, I decided to try to identify all women who had obtained a British patent from earliest times to 1899.

No doubt I’ve missed a few, but so far I’ve identified over 3,300 — mainly by repeatedly searching using girls’ first names in a variety of sources, or looking up known inventors on Google Books or in annual name indexes. They are on a spreadsheet.

Not all were the actual inventors. The British system did not distinguish between inventor and applicant, as did the US system, and instead favoured the applicant. Hence if Jones finances Smith in an invention, or runs a company and employs Smith, Jones is mentioned, and perhaps Smith, but the fact that Smith is merely the financier or employer is not mentioned (but the latter may be implied).

This is a real problem. Are the women inventors, or financial backers ? I have identified about 190 of the 3,300 where the woman is not the actual inventor but is involved in getting the patent granted.

Some are easy to identify. They may “communicate” an invention by a man (usually a relative), or may be the executrix or administratrix of a man (probably the husband or some other relative.

Others are harder — they have a US patent as well, which make it clear that the rights were assigned to them.

British patents do have a great advantage over US patents. They are much more likely to give full address details, to give full middle names instead of initials, and to provide details of their marital status or of employment. As the assignment details are so valuable, it is good to try to match up the patents for those women who patented on both sides of the Atlantic.

I intend in the future to post on a frequent basis, giving more details and examples of some of the inventors.

Stephen van Dulken