By Cassandra Brooklyn
Women may not have gained the right to drive until 1900, but it didn’t hold them back from making significant contributions to automotive history throughout the 20th century.
1. Bertha Benz
Born in an age when women were generally denied access to education, and during a time when “car” wasn’t commonly used in everyday vocabulary, Bertha Benz established herself in automotive history. Not only was she the wife of Karl Benz, the engineer of Mercedes-Benz fame, she was also his business partner. In addition to drumming up publicity for what is widely considered to be the world’s first production automobile, the motorwagen (built in 1885), she is credited with devising the world’s first brake pads. At the time, brakes were made from wood. When they began to wear down and fail, she asked a local shoemaker to install leather soles.
2. Mary Anderson
While riding a streetcar around the turn of the century, Mary Anderson noticed that the driver could hardly see through his front windshield. The front window split into several parts so the driver could move the snow- or rain-covered section out of his sight, but the poorly designed system also exposed everyone in the vehicle to the inclement weather. Anderson began sketching an improved wiper device on the spot and became the first person to ever patent a vehicle window–cleaning device. Though her device is the predecessor of today’s windshield wipers – a crucial part of any vehicle — she never profited from her invention.
3. Alice Huyler Ramsey
In August, 1909, at the age of 22, Alice Huyler Ramsey became the first woman to drive coast-to-coast, from New York to California. At that time, only 16 men had completed a coast-to-coast drive and Ramsey was the first woman to ever attempt the feat. She completed the 3,800-mile journey in 59 days — a particularly notable feat considering only 152 of those miles took place on paved roads. In 1960, AAA named Ramsey the “Woman Motorist of the Century” and in 2000, she became the first woman ever inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
4. Florence Lawrence
Florence Lawrence, often referred to as “the first movie star,” was so successful that she was able to purchase her own car in the early 20th century. This was a rare luxury at the time, particularly for women. In 1914, she developed a mechanical “auto signaling arm” that, with the press of a button, elevated or lowered an arm with an attached flag on the car’s rear bumper that signaled to other drivers the direction the car was going to turn. Lawrence subsequently devised a similar brake signal system, where a driver pressed on the brakes and a “stop” sign lifted up from the back bumper. Unfortunately, Lawrence never patented her ideas so she never received the credit (or compensation) she deserved.
5. June McCarroll
Former nurse and physician, Dr. June McCarroll, came up with an ingenious and life-saving idea that now may seem obvious. After she was nearly killed by a truck in 1917, she came up with the idea to have painted lines on roads to distinguish separate lanes. After the near-collision in her Model T, she shared the idea with the Riverside County Board of Supervisors in California. Unimpressed with her idea, the board shot her down. Dr. McCarroll was not deterred. She took it upon herself to personally hand-paint a white stripe down the middle of what is now Indio Boulevard. In 1924, California became the first state with mandatory centerlines, and in 2002, the state officially designated a stretch of Interstate 10 near her original white stripe as “The Doctor June McCarroll Memorial Freeway.”
(Go Magazine Spring 21)