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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.

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.

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