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The Forgotten Inventor

By Zing Tsjeng 3 min read
Monday, July 30, 2018

Creativity: a talent not contingent on an education.

Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (1912–2006) always had trouble sleeping when she was growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. Her mother would leave for work in the morning through the squeaky door at the back of their house and the noise would wake Mary up.

“So I said one day, ‘Mum, don’t you think someone could invent a self-oiling door hinge?’ ” She was only six at the time, but she set about the task with all the seriousness of a born inventor.

“I [hurt] my hands trying to make something that, in my mind, would be good for the door,” she said. “After that I dropped it, but never forgot it.” You could say that skill and ingenuity were in Mary’s blood. Her maternal grandfather had invented a tricolour light signal to guide trains, and her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith, grew up to patent her own family board game and sell it commercially.

Her preacher father, Sidney Nathaniel Davidson, even made a go of transforming the family hobby into a full-time career. Around 1914, Sidney patented a clothes presser that would fit in a suitcase and press trousers while a traveller was en route to his destination, but he turned down a New York company’s $20,000 offer in favour of attempting to manufacture and sell it himself. The result was a failure: he produced only a single presser, which he sold for the paltry sum of $14. Her father’s experience didn’t put Mary off inventing, and her idea for the door hinge ignited a spark deep inside her. New ideas for inventions would wake her up from sleep. She occupied herself drawing up models and building them. While other children her age were drawing fanciful aeroplanes and sports cars, Mary was making thoughtful plans for a convertible roof that would go over the folding rumble seat of a car, where backseat passengers were usually exposed to the elements. When she saw water dripping off a closed umbrella and onto the floor, she came up with a sponge tip that would fit on the end and soak up the rainwater. She even drew up plans for a portable ashtray that would attach itself to a cigarette packet. This pragmatic, do-it-yourself approach defined her inventions for the rest of her life.

But while her creations were often geared toward sensible solutions for everyday problems, Mary could tell from an early age that she had a skill that not many possessed. When her family moved to Washington DC in 1924, Mary would stalk the halls of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, trying to work out if someone had beaten her to it and filed a patent for an invention first. The 12-year-old didn’t find any that had done so. In 1931 Mary graduated from high school and earned a place at the prestigious Howard University, but was forced to drop out a year-and-a-half into her course due to financial pressures. She took on odd jobs such as babysitting before landing a position as a federal employee, but she continued tinkering in her spare time. The perennial problem was money; filing a patent was, and is, an expensive business. Today, a basic utility patent can cost several hundred dollars. By 1957 Mary had saved enough money to file her first ever patent: a belt for sanitary napkins. It was long before the advent of disposable pads, and women were still using cloth pads and rags during their period. Mary proposed an adjustable belt with an inbuilt, moisture-proof napkin pocket, making it less likely that menstrual blood could leak and stain clothes.

“One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant,” she said. “I saw houses, cars and everything about to come my way.”

A company rep drove to Mary’s house in Washington to meet with their prospective client.

“Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped. The representative went back to New York and informed me the company was no longer interested.”

Undeterred, Mary continued inventing for all her adult life. She eventually filed five patents in total, more than any other African-American woman in history. Again, she continued to draw inspiration from her daily life. When her sister Mildred developed multiple sclerosis and had to get around with a walking frame, Mary patented a serving tray and a soft pocket that could be attached to the frame, allowing Mildred to carry things around with her. She also patented a toilet tissue holder that made sure that the loose end of a roll was always within reach, and a back washer that could be attached to the wall of a shower to help people clean hard-to-reach parts of their back. Mary did not receive any university degree or professional training, and she never became rich from her inventions. But that was incidental; like her father and grandfather before her, she did it out of love for the craft.

Most of all, she believed that anyone could become an inventor as long as they put their mind to it: “Every person is born with a creative mind,” she said. “Everyone has that ability.”           

This is an extract from Forgotten Women: The Scientists by Zing Tsjeng. Published by Hachette Australia RRP $27.99.

Zing Tsjeng is the UK editor of the website, Broadly, which focuses on women’s issues and has been hailed as the “slickest feminist platform around”.