To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting eight women who revolutionized the transportation industry with their inventions, designs, and contributions to technology. Read on to learn more about the careers of these groundbreaking women and how they helped shape the future of mobility.
June Hill Robertson McCarroll
In 1917, physician June Hill Robertson McCarroll was involved in a car accident in her Model T Ford. She was on her way home from visiting a patient when a truck ran her off the road. As a result of the accident, McCarroll came up with a design that would become the modern day traffic lane.
Though local authorities dismissed her suggestion, McCarroll painted a white line down the middle of the road herself. Her actions caught the attention of others, and the California Highway Commission eventually approved the initiative in 1924.
McCarroll reportedly said the following about her major contribution to road safety: “When I gave this idea to an accident-ridden world, it was with no thought of honors -- only safety for drivers of automobiles.”
These days, many of us enjoy the privilege of getting into a warm car on a winter morning thanks to remote start and car heating systems. One of the people we have to thank for that luxury is engineer Margaret Wilcox.
In 1893, she received a patent for her invention of an internal car heater. The system that she designed back then is still used in our vehicles today. Air from the inside of the vehicle circulates past the hot engine, warming up before it returns back into the cabin.
At the time, the concept wasn’t perfect, as there was no way to regulate the temperature of the returning air. This meant that the longer you drove the car, the hotter the air inside the cabin would become. However, improvements have been made to the design over time, with temperature controls now allowing drivers to blend hot and cold air until they reach their ideal temperature.
Mimi Vandermolen was among the first female icons of automotive design. She accepted a position as a full-time designer for the Ford Motor Company in 1970. During her employment, she built notable models including the 1974 Mustang and the 1986 Taurus sedan. Her contributions to the Taurus are particularly important. Many of its interior features, including temperature controls and a curved dashboard, were the first of their kind.
Known by some as the “mother of Wi-Fi,” Hedy Lamarr was much more than just a renowned actress. A woman of immense versatility, Lamarr invented a frequency-hopping system in the early years of World War II. The system was designed to keep enemy ships from detecting and blocking Allied torpedoes.
Though the Navy originally rejected the idea, Lamarr’s invention became the foundation for spread spectrum technology such as Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi, all of which are now a major part of our vehicles and navigation. It is estimated that her frequency-hopping invention alone would be worth up to $30 billion today.
Mary Anderson & Charlotte Bridgwood
The invention of windshield wipers, another major safety innovation, can be accredited to two female inventors: Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgwood. The idea originated with Anderson, who was inspired to create a device to clear the windshield while taking the trolley in New York City. She noticed the driver had to leave his vehicle repeatedly throughout the journey in order to clean snow from the windshield. As a result, she invented a way to clear the window from inside the car via a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade attached.
Charlotte Bridgwood picked up the design a little over a decade later and electrified the wipers.
Hedy Lamarr was not the only actress with a drive for inventing. Florence Lawrence, actress and car enthusiast who frequently did work on her own vehicle, invented the first turn signals.
The original design featured flags that were raised or lowered at the push of a button to indicate which direction the driver intended to turn. She also included a brake signal in the form of a “STOP” sign that appeared when she pressed the brake.
The first female Secretary of Transportation in the United States was Elizabeth Dole. During her stint from 1983 to 1987, she made road safety a top priority. Dole pushed for the installation of center high-mounted brake lights on new automobiles. These were later deemed “Liddy Lights” in honor of her nickname.
She was also involved in a number of vehicle safety initiatives such as incentivizing the installation of airbags, promoting increased seat belt usage, and working alongside Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
A major pioneer in autonomous driving technology, Tekedra Mawakana is the Co-CEO of Waymo (formerly known as the Google self-driving car project). Named by Vulog as one of the “Top 20 in 2020 Influential Women in Mobility,” Mawakana made it her goal to increase efficiency, and safety for the company’s autonomous driving technology. She aims to make this type of tech more accessible to the public as well.
The contributions of women to the tech, mobility, and automotive industries have been remarkable and continue to shape the world we live in today. The stories of these eight women serve as a reminder that gender should never be a barrier to success, and we should celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of women in every field.