5 Unknown Inventors and their Creations

We look at some unknown inventors whose designs contributed to our everyday lives, from Roald Dahl to Hedy Lamarr.

Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: September 2019

Stephanie Kwolek: Kevlar

Stephanie Kwolek was a Polish-American chemist whose career at chemical company DuPont spanned 40 years. In the early 1960s, Kwolek developed a polymer solution that, when spun, was five times stronger than steel: Kevlar. Its applications vary widely, ranging from bicycle tyres and drumheads to smartphones and bulletproof vests. Kwolek never directly profited from her invention as another team at DuPont took her initial findings and developed it further. Interestingly, during the week of Kwolek’s death in 2014, the one-millionth Kevlar-made bulletproof vest was sold.

Drawing of molecular structure of Kevlar

Roald Dahl: Cerebral Valve

Yes, we’re talking about Roald Dahl the famous children’s book writer! When Dahl’s son, Theo, was a baby he was in a taxi accident that caused hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid within the brain. Dahl collaborated with Great Ormond Street neurosurgeon Kenneth Till and hydraulic engineer Stanely Wade to develop an advanced type of cerebral shunt. Their design, the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, was used on around 3,000 children before medical technology progressed further. All three inventors refused to profit from their work.

Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgewood: the Windscreen Wiper

In winter 1903 Mary Anderson was traveling through New York in a trolley car when she noticed the driver could not see through the window because of snow and sleet. She developed a spring-loaded device with a rubber blade that the driver could turn to wipe snow from the windshield: the windcreen wiper! Anderson patented her design but could not sell it, as many cars at the time didn’t go fast enough to actually need windshields. By the time car safety became a priority in the 1950s, Anderson’s patent had lapsed and other companies copied her idea.

Furthermore, the first automatic wipers were invented by another American woman, Charlotte Bridgewood. Bridgewood filed a patent in 1917 but, like Anderson, did not see commercial success.

László Bíró: the Ballpoint Pen

The most famous name you’ve (sort of) never heard… László Bíró was an early-20th-century Hungarian journalist who noticed that although the ink used in newspapers dried quickly, fountain pen ink did not. Furthermore, fountain pen ink was far less practical. Bíró worked with his brother, György, who was a chemist, to develop a new pen tip. A ball turned in a socket, picking up ink from a cartridge and depositing it on paper: the ballpoint pen! Bíró patented his invention in Paris in 1938. He and György fled to Argentina during World War II, developing further patents for ballpoint pens or, as we tend to call them, biros.

Colourful Ballpoint Pens

Hedy Lamarr: Frequency-Hopping System

Best known as a Hollywood actress, Austrian-American Hedy Lamarr was also a self-taught inventor. In the early 1940s, Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed and patented a frequency-hopping system that could prevent radio-controlled torpedos from becoming tracked or jammed. The design was not used by the American navy at the time as it was difficult to implement. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, however, an updated version of the design was used on Navy ships. Furthermore, Lamarr and Antheil’s work contributed to the development of Bluetooth and wifi.

Did you learn something new about inventors in this post? Leave us a comment!

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