Lady Inventors: America's First Female Patent-Holder

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Sam Fentress/Wikimedia Commons

In 1715, Sybilla Masters received what was possibly the first patent granted t0 a resident of the colonial United States. Her husband, in fact, owned the patent perhaps due to her Thomas Masters' notoriety as a Philadelphia politician or coverture laws that barred married women's rights to own property and business holdings. The patent, issued by King George I, did at least acknowledge that Syibilla was the rightful inventor:

"Letters patent to Thomas Masters, of Pennsylvania, Planter, his Execrs., Amrs. and Assignees, of the sole Vse and Benefit of A new Invention found out by Sybilla, his wife, for cleaning and curing the Indian Corn, growing in the several Colonies of America, within England, Wales, and Town of Berwick upon Tweed, and the Colonies of America."

Apparently, the British patent office worked at a snail's pace since Sybilla had traveled to London in 1712 in order to file two patent requests. The first was for her corn milling innovation that ground corn into meal by smashing the kernels with a pair of pestle-like hammers, and the second was for "a new way of working and staining in straw, and the plat, and the leaf of the palmetto tree, and covering and adorning hats and bonnets in such a manner as was never before done or practiced in England or any of our plantations."

Not until May 05, 1809 would Mary Kies become the first woman -- and the first African-American woman -- to receive a U.S. patent. Like Sybilla Masters, Kies also sought to improve women's hat and bonnet production, and her new method "was a new and useful improvement in weaving straw with silk and thread" and was lauded at the time as an example of how to invigorate American manufacturing.