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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

5 female inventors that changed our lives

When thinking of the most famous inventors of all time, a multitude of names spring to mind. But from Einstein to Edison, Nobel to Newton – often women with incredible ideas are overlooked. With the Nesta £50,000 Inventor Prize open for entries, we wanted to spark a little inspiration for the next generation of female inventors by presenting some of our favourite inventions made by women both past and present, and honour the improvements they’ve made to our lives.  

Maria Telkes (1900-1995)

Born in Hungary in 1900, Maria Telkes is known as both the “sun queen” and the “mother of the solar home”. While working for MIT in the US, Telkes focused her research on solar energy and received a grant to build the first ever home powered by sunlight. Dover House was completed in 1948 and she became the first recipient of the Society of Women Engineers Achievement award in 1952.

Although the potential power of solar energy took some time to catch on, Telkes’ work was undoubtedly the cornerstone for much modern development in solar power.

Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Nicknamed “amazing Grace”, Ms Hopper was an esteemed mathematician and military leader who dedicated her life to the US Navy. First assigned to the military during WW2, Hopper worked on programming the Mark 1 computer – one of the most advanced systems of its time.

Using her vast experience gained operating this system, Grace later developed COBOL (common business oriented language) which changed the lives for those working in the computer industry by enabling computers to respond to words, not just numbers.

Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014)

In 1965, American inventor Stephanie Kwolek created the first in what would later become a range of fibres that were know for their exceptional stiffness that were “so strong not even a bullet could penetrate”. The most well known, Kevlar, is now used globally in clothing, and helps protect police and servicemen.

Kwolek received an induction to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994, making her the fourth female member at the time.

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922 - 1999)

Concerned for her safety at home as the rate of crime in her neighbourhood of Queens, New York continued to rise, American nurse Marie van Brittan Brown filed for a patent of her invention in 1969. The device she’d developed was a system of peepholes and a moveable camera that connected to a monitor in her bedroom – and enabled her to see who was at her door or surrounding her property.

She won an award from the National Science committee for huge contribution to personal home security, and helped lay the foundation for all security devices being used in modern homes today.

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh

Sugru, a mouldable glue that helps you permanently fix your things has been dubbed “the most exciting product since sellotape”. The brainchild of Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, who studied at the Royal College of Art but had no scientific background, Sugru was officially launched in 2009 after years of development and funded by a £35000 Nesta grant.

The company now employs 60 staff, and is valued at £25 million. Read more about Jane and Sugru here.

Inspired by the women you’ve read about above? Remember that Nesta’s £50,000 Inventor Prize is open for entries. We’re working in partnership with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), to harness the potential of the UK’s homegrown inventors and support people to get their ideas off the ground.

This article was originally published on the Inventor Prize blog.

The £50,000 Inventor Prize is looking for the UK’s best inventions that help make people’s lives better. We are looking for innovative and exciting new products that haven’t been on sale before. Find out more and apply here.


Zofia Jackiewicz

Zofia Jackiewicz

Zofia Jackiewicz

Assistant Programme Manager

Zofia's work in Nesta Challenges focused on development and delivery of various projects including the European Social Innovation Competition.

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