Before this week, I had never heard of Beulah Louise Henry.
One of our technology advisors was wearing a Hallowe’en costume on October 31st: an outfit about a century out of date. She told anyone willing to listen about Lady Edison, an inventor who had 49 US patents in her own name and had made a comfortable living manufacturing, selling, and licensing her work. Henry was not related to the more famous Edison a generation or two ahead of her. The breadth, volume, and success of her work earned her the nickname comparing her to an inventor whose name remains in the global consciousness today.
Henry, who fiercely guarded her independence and meticulously chose her research and development team, was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. Some sources note she was believed to have synesthesia, a mapping of stimuli to multiple senses that is anecdotally associated with high intelligence, strong spatial reasoning, and creativity.
One of the more complete online biographies of Henry notes she was encouraged by her parents (an artist and an art authority descended from US statesman Patrick Henry) in creative pursuits. Though she was not formally educated in either engineering or business, her catalogue of patents demonstrates solid design knowledge and her financial success was exceptional for a woman of her era.
Why had I not heard of Lady Edison earlier? Henry’s work focused heavily on daily use items and improvements to tools used primarily by women. Her later work involved developing intellectual property for companies that did not include her name on patent applications. She was not active in computing, the field in which I have studied and spent much of my career to date. It’s not unusual for people outside an area of expertise to know little of the successes of women in that profession.
I encourage you to learn more about the successes of people who don’t fit the standard of leaders. Whether they are long dead or currently active, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, their stories have shaped our world. It would be a shame to let their works fall to silence.