Woman inventor rises above financial trouble, pursues her dream, garners nearly thirty patents and revolutionizes an industry. Sounds like a modern-day success story. Even though Helen Blanchard would be remarkable by modern-day metrics, the fact that she achieved all of this during the late nineteenth century is even more impressive.
Not much is known about Blanchard’s personal life, but her story seems to be one of invention and reinvention. The daughter of a wealthy merchant in Portland, Maine, Helen seems to have followed a traditional path until her thirties, when her father lost his money and his homestead in the business panic of 1866. Though Helen had no technical training, her father’s financial losses meant she had to reinvent herself. And she did so in the most unusual of ways, transforming herself from rich daughter into tireless inventor.
Over the years that followed, Helen racked up not one, but 28 patents. Her inventions mostly had to do with mechanized sewing—appropriate for a time when industrial might was transforming garment making. Among her patents are a machine for knit goods, a crochet machine, improved needles, and the zigzag sewing machine. Surgical needles and pencil sharpeners are also on the list. Helen founded her own machine company in Philadelphia and watched as her innovations helped transform the commercial textile, knit sewing, hat and corset industry. She eventually earned enough money to buy back the homestead and live in relative economic security. And unlike many of her contemporaries, Helen devoted herself to philanthropic work to help the women displaced by her machines.
Though one of Helen’s sewing machines sits in the National Museum of American History and zig-zag sewing is still in use today, her name has faded from memory. Unfortunately, the historical record of today reflects yesterday’s priorities, and critical details of Helen’s life remain obscure. Would she be more prominent today if her inventions were in a field other than sewing?
In 1893, at least, Helen was prominent enough to earn a spot in an encyclopedia of prominent women, and the description of her path could be that of any modern innovator: “The ambition and energy that have marked her life were stimulated by the numberless annoyances and obstacles that always beset the pathway of a persevering inventor, in the shape of Patent Office delays, mercenary infringement of her rights and unscrupulous assaults on the products of her brain.” Maybe we should take a page from Helen’s book and find fire and inspiration in the very roadblocks that have kept women like her out of the spotlight.
This article originally appeared on Modern Notion.