Automotive pioneers

On International Women’s Day we remember some of the unsung pioneers of the automotive industry.

Although they may not be household names, the contribution these women have made to the cars we drive today is simply enormous.

8 March, 2021

Automotive inventions that we take for granted to this very day

On International Women’s Day in the past we’ve celebrated the likes of our very own Michele Mouton and Fabrizia Pons – the dynamic duo who changed the face of international rally driving forever. Or Leena Gade, the first female race engineer to win the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans – again with an Audi team.

But this year we’re casting the net wider to acknowledge the many women who have played a key role in the automotive industry in general – or more specifically, made contributions that have influenced the very cars we drive today.

Their names are for the most part not well known (although several of them were very high profile in their day), and they certainly don’t get the recognition they deserve given their significant automotive inventions.

Take for example the humble rear view mirror, which, in combination with a car’s wing mirrors provides the driver with crucial information on what’s coming up behind them. The rearview mirror was the brainchild of Dorothy Levitt, the first British woman racing driver way back in the early 1900s. Levitt was quite a character and there was nothing she shied away from, setting the women’s land speed record, water speed record and teaching Queen Alexandra to drive. 

Amongst many suggestions for other female motorists of the time, she advised that it was useful to carry a small hand mirror and hold it up occasionally to check behind the car. Simple and common sense in so many ways – but no-one had ever thought of it before and the safety implications then and now go without saying. The rearview mirror was adopted by manufacturers as a permanent fixture in the car in 1914.

The next time you turn on the climate control in your Audi, spare a thought for Margaret A. Wilcox, whose ingenious invention made the cars of the late 1800s comfortable proposition than they had been. Wilcox was in fact a mechanical engineer and her idea was to employ a combustion chamber under the car to heat water which would in turn heat air which was directed into the cabin of the car.

Her invention was a game changer, and turned motoring from a fairly rugged pastime in many climates, into a far more civilised pursuit.

Obviously her original system has undergone significant upgrades over the intervening years to the point that car heating has become so sophisticated that it’s no longer even called ‘car heating’. Nowadays, climate control as it’s called, literally allows you to control the climate in your car, and different zones within a car can be tailored to the occupant’s desired temperature. Back back when the patent was granted in 1893, the idea was a revolution and an automotive luxury that we now take for granted.

Margaret A. Wilcox invented what was perhaps the first true automotive luxury item.

Think of Mary Anderson the next time you find yourself driving through a decent rain storm

Another standard fixture on all of today’s cars and trucks can be chalked down to one Mary Anderson, who came up with a simple device for cleaning water, snow and sleet away from the screen of a vehicle to allow the driver to see. Again, we now take windscreens wipers for granted – front and rear in many cases – and with rain sensing technology that turns them on and indeed varies the speed depending on the intensity of the rain. 

When Anderson came up with the idea in New York in the early 1900s, the design was nowhere near as elaborate as it is today, but the simple wiping mechanism that was made up of a handle inside the car operating a rubber ‘blade’ on the outside, certainly did the trick.

Anderson patented the idea and in around 1922, automotive manufacturers started to take notice and add variations of the device to their vehicles as standard equipment. The very idea of driving a car now without wipers seems utterly ridiculous.

Another essential which has become a science in its own right is that of the humble brake pad. Car aficionados talk about performance and braking capacity in the same breath given that you can’t have one without the other. The inventor of the original brake pads was Bertha Benz.

The name is familiar because Bertha was Karl Benz’s wife, and while she did not invent car brakes as such, an outing in one of Karl’s early cars showed the wooden brakes to be less than up to the job of sustained braking. 

The story goes that Bertha had a cobbler cover the wooden brakes with leather, effectively creating a brake pad that provided infinitely better stopping power than the bare wood of the brakes, and the brake pad was invented.

Although brakes had already been invented, the addition of brake pads afforded infinitely better stopping power

Although not a light as such, the 'stop' sign mounted aft, was the precursor to the modern brake light

And what would good brakes be without the means to warn those behind you of your intention to stop? The precursor to the brake light and turn signals or indicators was the brainchild of Florence Lawrence who was a big silent movie star in the early 1900s.

For Lawrence, motoring was a passion, and by all accounts she spent a great deal of behind the wheel touring around the countryside. As much as she loved the car, there were areas Lawrence felt were lacking – one being a satisfactory way of alerting other motorists as to which direction you were heading in. At the time, indicating was done by pointing with the arm in the desired direction, but with hand gestures often misinterpreted, this was less than ideal.

Lawrence came up with a simple signalling lever or arm that was designed solely for the purpose of indicating – that way no one would become confused if a motorist happened to use expansive hand gestures while telling his passengers a story that were then misconstrued by other motorists.

Next, Lawrence came up with a sign that would sit up at the rear of the car bearing the word ‘STOP’ when the brake lever was engaged. Obviously as time went on and automotive lighting was used to fulfil these roles, the indicator and stop light were introduced, but the idea for both originally came from Florence Lawrence.