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Women Who Changed the Automotive Industry


Over the years, many remarkable women have shaped the automotive industry. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve decided to profile ten of these amazing women and their contributions to the industry.

Bertha Benz invents road trips and brake pads

If Bertha’s last name sounds familiar, it should. She was married to Karl Benz. Yes, that Karl Benz. In an effort to popularize Benz’s horseless carriage (and to see her mom), Bertha took a 66 mile road trip to her mother’s house. She only notified her husband of the trip when she reached her destination. Along the way, she didn’t like how the brakes were working, and went ahead an invented the technology that would later become brake pads.

Margaret Wilcox invents car heaters

In the early days of cars, there were no heaters. You were pretty much stuck with whatever the weather was outside, and then got to throw windchill on top of that. Margaret Wilcox was already an accomplished inventor by the time she tackled this problem, filing her previous patents under her husband’s name. When she came up with the idea to use the warmth of the engine to heat the extremities of the driver, she patented the first car heater in 1893. Here’s the kicker: She filed this patent under her own name. While modern heaters don’t use the same methods Wilcox used, she is nonetheless an important figure and a remarkable mind.

3. Mary Anderson invents windshield wipers

Mary Anderson was a rancher, a real estate developer, and a grape grower when a trip brought her to New York. While traveling on a trolley during a storm, she noted that the driver had to stick his head out of the window to see as the windshield was entirely blocked by sleet. Anderson designed the windshield wiper, which weren’t too much different than what you’d see today. She patented her invention in 1903 and by 1916 they came standard in all vehicles.

4. Florence Lawrence makes cars safer

Poetically-named Florence Lawrence is often referred to as “the first movie star” because of the erroneous factoid that she was the first credited motion picture performer. What is true is that she was a brilliant and safety-minded inventor who sought to reduce the number of car accidents on the road. She did this with two inventions. The first were flags that would be raised by the driver to tell those around them which way the car was turning. The other was a stop sign that came up on the rear of the car when the brake was depressed. You might recognize these as the progenitors of both turn signals and brake lights, inventions that, were we without them, would make modern driving almost impossible.

5. Katharine Blodgett is why you can see through the windshield

In 1926 Katharine Blodgett became the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. Unsatisfied by only making history once, she swiftly became the first woman to work for General Electric. Using techniques that are, frankly, way beyond my understanding, she invented non-reflecting glass. This is why your windshield doesn’t have a glare. When it’s clean, that is.

6. Hedy Lamarr is why you have GPS

In her day, Hedy Lamarr was known as one of the most beautiful stars to grace the silver screen. Her keen mind was far less recognized, but she helped invent technology that is a lynchpin of not just cars but of modern life as a whole. During WWII, she, along with composer George Anthell created a frequency-hopping signal to prevent allied torpedoes from being jammed. These same techniques are used in Wi-Fi, making Hedy Lamarr one of the most important inventors ever.

7. Denise McCluggage was a race car driver and founded a magazine

Denise McCluggage was already a journalist when she started racing professionally in 1954. She raced until the late ‘60s, with her white helmet with pink polka dots becoming her hallmark. She won several races in her time, fighting the sexism of her colleagues, the press, and the fans the entire time. When she was finished racing, she founded the venerable magazine AutoWeek, serving as a Senior Contributing Editor until her death in 2015 at the age of 88.

8. Mary Barra is the first female CEO of a major OEM

In 2014, Mary Barra became the new CEO of GM, making history and presumably a great deal of money. She has announced a commitment to electric and autonomous vehicles, marking her as a forward-thinking executive.

9. Danica Patrick is… you know who Danica Patrick is

Probably alone among these luminaries, Danica Patrick needs no introduction. She holds a litany of firsts, including the first woman to win an IndyCar Series race, first woman to clinch a pole position in the NASCAR Cup Series, the most stars, laps led, and top tens for any woman in the NASCAR Cup Series, highest finish by a woman in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 and she is one of only 14 drivers to have led both races. Pretty impressive stuff.

10. Jean Jennings

Jean Jennings has forgotten more about cars than most of us will ever know. She started her automotive career as a writer for Car and Driver before co-founding Automobile. She became Editor-in-Chief there in 2000, and president in 2006. She is perhaps most famous for her tenure as Good Morning America’s automotive correspondent in the late ‘90s. Though her prodigious output has slowed in recent years, she is still writing for her own blog on the subject she loves and knows so much about.

We shouldn’t wait until March to honor all the extraordinary women in our industry and in our lives. These ten women are only the tip of the iceberg of a slew of great minds, all of whom have contributed so much. Happy Women’s History Month to them, and to women all over the world.

Author Justin Robinson-Prickett

Justin Robinsion-Prickett is a content writer from Los Angeles with over a decade of experience in the auto industry under his belt. When not working, he enjoys fencing, re-editing dialogue in old movies to remove articles, and playing with his two dogs James Westphal and Dr. Kenneth Noisewater.

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