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Many women are the mother of invention

Book examines contributions to change

By Jessie Milligan

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Nothing seems to create need more than a big mistake that requires correction.

Take the case of Rommy Revson, inventor of the soft band for ponytails known as the Scunci (though most people call it a "scrunchy").

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"More than 2 billion Scuncis have been sold in the past 10 years, and it all started because of a bad divorce and a worse bleach job," writes Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek, authors of "Patently Female, From AZT to TV Dinners, Stories of Women Inventors and Their Breakthrough Ideas." The book is a light encyclopedia of women's contributions to the world of change.

Revson needed a job after her divorce but hesitated to go on interviews with her recently bleached hair that was too breakable to be held back by a clip or a band. She fashioned soft fabric over bands, and the Scunci was born.

Not all patents granted to female inventors are for girly or household items.

By the 1980s, the bulk of women's patents were in biochemistry.

Women held 1 percent of all U.S. patents in the 1880s. By 1998, women were holders of 10 percent of new patents, even while they make up about half of the work force.

Is there bias against women's big ideas? Perhaps there was in the case of Magdalena Villaruz, who invented a power tiller that floats for use in areas such as rice fields. Her Tiller Turtle was rejected at an inventors' contest because one judge deemed it "impractical," though she already had made her first million dollars selling them, "Patently Female" tells us.

Another lesson for inventors? Don't pay too much attention to critics. Grace Murray Hopper invented a compiler for computers that meant basic programs did not need to be re-entered.

"Nobody believed it could be done, yet it was so obvious. Developing a compiler was a logical move, but in matters like this you don't run against logic -- you run against people who can't change their minds," she is quoted as saying in "Patently Female."

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Hopper went on to invent COBOL, a programming language for businesses. And she reportedly kept in her office a clock that ran backward, just to remind visitors to look at common things in new ways.

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