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The Car Coach: The women who changed automotive history

Written By | Mar 20, 2021
The Car Coach, Women, Inventors

The Car Coach – The Woman who made auto’s what they are today

You may not realize that reason you have some great features and technologies in your vehicle are because women didn’t like the original method and invented a better solution. The first woman to drive a car was Bertha Benz, she was a pioneer, she also took the first road trip in a car.

Bertha Benz was married to Carl, Benz and supported him in the invention of the automobile.

No one was very interested in his motorcar until Bertha and their sons took a now-famous road trip. Without Carl’s knowledge, Bertha and the boys snuck the car out of Carl’s workshop and took it on the first-long-distance road trip, from Mannheim to Pforzheim.

It was a rough ride on roads built for horses and carriages. She made several repairs during her journey and even invented the first brake pad, made of leather when the car’s wooden brakes failed. But she is the first woman to test drive a car.

But this is just the beginning, these inventions make your life easier. Stay till the end, and I’ll tell you about my design that changed the automotive aftermarket.

Margaret Wilcox was a trailblazer.

Born in 1838, she was one of the very few female engineers of the time. In 1893, she received the patent for the interior car heater when she engineered a system that pulled the heat from the engine then redirected the air inside the cabin of the car which kept its occupants warm. The revolutionary system became the basis of all future car heating systems.

Wilcox was one of the first-ever female mechanical engineers responsible for life-changing inventions such as the baking pan, combined clothes, the dishwasher machine, and the home heater.

Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgwood invented the windshield wipers that help us to drive safely in rain and snow.

Mary Anderson

Noticing that when it was snowing that drivers would stop every few blocks to clear off the windscreen, Mary Anderson created a hand device, with a hand-operated handle on the inside and a rubber blade on the outside. A patent was granted to her in 1903. Manufacturers thought this had no value. She never made any money with the patent because it expired before manufacturers realized this was necessary.  However, she became a successful developer.

In 1917, Charlotte Bridgwood upgraded the wiper to be electrically operated, her design used rollers instead of blades to clean a windshield. Anderson and Bridgwood were too smart for their time because their patents expired after not getting enough attention from automakers. Little did they know windshield wipers would eventually become a standard feature in all cars.

By 1922, Cadillac took Anderson’s idea and applied it to their own cars as standard, with other manufacturers quickly hopping onto the bandwagon.

Read more from the Car Coach

Florence Lawrence and auto signaling arms

At one point in automotive history, brake lights and turn signals didn’t exist until silent-film actress Florence Lawrence saw the need. Drivers would use hand signals or nothing at all. Enter Florence Lawrence who starred in over 300 silent films and effectively became one of the world’s first-ever Hollywood celebrities. She made a ton of money from her career and was rich enough to be able to purchase a motorcar.

Florence Anderson

Driving was an activity that Lawrence found great enjoyment out of. It was said to give her a brilliant sense of freedom and independence. There were just a couple of things missing and she decided to invent them!

In 1913, Lawrence invented a device called the Auto Signaling Arm. This special mechanism worked as a signaling arm to inform other motorists of which direction the driver was heading in. This would form the basis of the turn signal and was a revolutionary idea. Lawrence also created a sign which would pop up on the back of the car upon pressing the brake pedal. The sign simply read the word, ‘stop’.

In case you can’t guess already, this formed the basis of the brake light!

Dorothy Levitt invented the rear-view mirror.

Levitt was the first British female racing driver and a pioneer of women in the automotive sector. She taught Queen Alexandra how to drive alongside the then royal princesses. Levitt also holds the world’s first water speed record.

She wrote a book titled ‘The Woman and the Car’ which was published in 1909. In it, there was a recommendation that women drivers should always have a little mirror inside the car while driving. She stressed that it must be placed in a convenient spot so that things behind were visible.  Well, that formed the basis of the rear-view mirror – and manufacturers quickly caught on as it became a feature a few years later in 1914.

Dorothy Levitt driving a Napier in Brighton (1905) [via Wikimedia Commons]

June McCarrol invented road lane separation.

June McCarrol

McCarrol was a nurse who was involved in a pretty scary incident in 1917. While driving her Ford Model T, a truck was approaching in the opposite direction, forcing her to swerve off the road to avoid a nasty crash. She then had an idea that would change the roads forever.

She personally painted a set of white lines across that road. The street is now known as Indio Boulevard in California. The idea was to separate traffic onto each side to avoid head-on incidents.

By 1924, her idea was adopted by the California Highway Commission which made the center lines mandatory and proceeded to paint 3,500 miles of road superstation lines across the county. Soon afterward, every state followed suit for drivers’ safety.

Many believe that in 1906 Edward Hines of Michigan claims to be the inventor. Either way, the roads are much safer.

Katharine Blodgett, an engineer, and scientist invented non-reflective glass and anti-glare windshields. 

In 1926, at age 21, Blodgett was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in Physics at Cambridge University. In 1938, she developed a liquid soap that, when 44 layers were spread over the glass, would allow 99 percent of light to pass through. Her development paved the way for future engineers to create a more durable coating that wouldn’t wipe off.

Hedy Lamar, the famous actress was the inventor of Bluetooth.

Hedy Lama, Actress and Inventor

In the 1940s, Lamar invented a device that blocked enemy ships from interrupting torpedo guidance signals. The device would take the torpedo signals and make them jump from frequency to frequency, making it near impossible for an enemy to locate the message.

It’s this ‘frequency jumping’ technology we find in the Bluetooth features in our car letting us talk on the phone hands-free or stream our favorite music. Her technology can also be found in cell-phones, Wi-Fi and GPS.

Gladys Mae West invented GPS

A mathematician who worked for the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, Gladys Mae West was the project manager for SEASAT, the first earth-orbiting satellite measuring ocean depths. That work on the 1978 SEASAT project helped West and her team build the GEOSAT satellite creating computer simulations of earth’s surfaces. Her calculations and work on the SEASAT and GEOSAT helped make the GPS systems in our cars – we’d be lost without her.

Some extra fun facts:

In 1898, Genevra Delphine Mudge of New York became the earliest known woman to receive driver’s license, she was also the first female driver in an automobile accident. Her first car was a Waverly electric which she drove on the streets of New York City.

Among the female firsts, was Duchesse d Uzes, of France, who in 1898 was the first woman to receive a speeding ticket for going 9 mph in a 7 mph zone.

Lauren Fix – The Car Coach:

In 1982, I was working at a brake rebuilding company, the core product was Corvette and Mustang brake rebuilding kits. As we attended many swap meets people would tell me they wanted front disc brakes but had drum brakes and hated them especially in the rain. Over the next few months, I created the first drum to disc brake conversion kit for 1965-67 Mustangs to add front disc brakes to early Mustangs.

I later added older vehicles and rear disc brake kits that are now readily available in the automotive aftermarket for sports and muscle cars.

Bottom Line:

So many more women have been an important part of auto history and we will cover that in another video, from racing to auto shows to advertisements.

If you have additional questions, put them in the comments below and I’ll be happy to answer.

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There are more features and design information that we cover in our video review. Check out the Car Coach Reports Ratings on this video before you buy any vehicle.

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Lauren Fix

Lauren Fix, The Car Coach®, is a nationally recognized automotive expert, analyst, author, and television host. A trusted car expert, Lauren provides an insider’s perspective on a wide range of automotive topics and aspects, energy, industry, consumer news and safety issues.