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Do You Know How Many Things Women Have Invented, Including GPS, WiFi and Duct Tape?

Time to Celebrate Women's Innovative Savvy

A 1932 photo of Canadian Harper Method franchisees. (Photos from the author’s research files)

By Jane Plitt

Alexandria, VA – March is women’s history month and a perfect time to discover, applaud, and teach our children the forgotten ways women have bettered this world by using their innovative savvy.

Did you know that women are responsible for enabling GPS, WIFI, the home security system, cataract laser surgery, forced air heating system, mechanical dishwasher, reclining shampoo chair, rocket fuel, successful satellite orbiting, the concepts of computers and computer programming, duct tape, and many more of everyday conveniences and fundamental technological advances?

Locally, Julia Johns and her Board of Lady Managers launched Alexandria’s hospital (now Inova) 150 years ago. Through October 2023, the Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum is hosting the Alexandria Hospital Exhibit. For information, go to and search “Alexandria Hospital Exhibit Now Open.” Be sure to check the “Include Archived Pages” box.

Given Alexandria’s focus on innovation, our community has the exciting opportunity to become a leader in showcasing how women’s creativity has shaped our world. First, however, we need to know their stories. Stories that aren’t taught in school or widely known.

Martha Matilda Harper

I spent six years crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada, piecing together the buried story of Martha Matilda Harper, the 19th-century Canadian servant girl who, 60 years before Ray Kroc launched McDonald’s®, transformed her life and the lives of thousands of women by creating modern retail franchising with over 500 Harper Method beauty shops worldwide.

It came about because Harper was pressured to expand her Rochester, NY, shop to Chicago in time for the 1893 World’s Fair. Unable as a woman to obtain traditional financing or venture capital, Harper conceived the franchising business model and pioneered social entrepreneurship by insisting that only poor women would own her first 100 franchises. World leaders, including British royalty, the German Kaiser, and U.S. presidents and their families, became devoted customers.

Although Harper’s success financially enriched her and her shop owners, she understood the importance of what her new business model enabled. She said, “The Great Achievement of the Harper Method does not consist of the large number of our shops – though the sun never sets on them. It does not rest on the Scientific perfection of our [services and products]. The Great Achievement of the Harper Method is the women it has made.“

In 2003, Martha Matilda Harper was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Business Hall of Fame for her achievements in business.

A marketing brochure for the Harper Method.

Dr. Gladys Brown West

Another under-recognized innovator is Dr. Gladys West, a Virginia Tech graduate whose mathematical modeling of the shape of Earth and development of satellite geodesy models were incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS). Yet few of us know her name.

Gladys Brown West was born in 1930 to a Black farming family in Sutherland, Virginia, during the heyday of segregation. She did not want a backbreaking life in tobacco fields and factories like her parents. West pursued education to capitalize on her innate mathematical aptitude and over the years earned four degrees.

After many unsuccessful attempts to land a professional civil service job, in 1956 West accepted a position at the U.S. Naval Proving Ground (now the Naval Surface Warfare Center) in Dahlgren, Virginia. She was one of four Black professionals. West worked on many critical scientific projects with the Navy until retiring in 1998.

In 2000, the Virginia General Assembly passed a joint resolution honoring West’s trailblazing career in mathematics and vital contributions to modern technology. That same year she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Hall of Fame. In 2018, Dr. West completed a PhD via a distance-learning program with the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Gladys West urges more support for women and minorities in science and mathematics through scholarships and tailored training programs. Do you believe it is time girls see themselves in STEM careers and have the inspiration and support to pursue them? Are you interested in expanding our recognition for women’s achievements like these ? Please get in touch! [email protected]

Dr. Gladys West then and more recently.

Discover More Fabulous Women Innovators

The first 10 people to identify the women behind these products or achievements will win a free copy of the biography, Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business by Jane Plitt.

Name the woman who invented or developed these:

-Home security system

-Nestlé® chocolate chips

-Pioneer of computer programming


-Cataract surgery with Laserphaco probe

-Mechanical Dishwasher

-Kevlar (Bullet proof fiber)

-Reclining shampoo chair

-Windshield wiper

-Duct tape

-Rocket fuel (Jupiter propellant).

Email your answers to [email protected] with BOOK CONTEST in the subject line. Be sure to include your full name and address.

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