Happy B’day Katharine Burr Blodgett: The Inventor of Invisible Glass

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The 19th century was considered as a men’s century; women were considered as only housewives and were not provided with an adequate education. The famous entrepreneurs, industrialists, scientists, and research practitioners of the nineteenth century were mostly men.

There were some women entrepreneurs, inventors who defied this convention include Margaret Knight well known for founding Eastern Paper Bag Company and inventing the shoe manufacturing machine, Melitta Bentz for inventing the coffee filtration machine, Caresse Crosby for inventing the ‘backless brassiere’ (modern bra), and Katharine Burr Blodgett for inventing the famous “invisible glass.”

Katharine Blodgett was born with a ‘silver spoon’ which allowed her to receive the finest of the education available at the time. Her father, George R. Blodgett was a well-known patent attorney for General Electric Company (NYSE: GE).

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Her cutting-edge research paper on gas masks saved thousands of lives during World War I. She was the first woman to earn Ph.D. in Physics from Cambridge University in 1926. She is best known for inventing ‘invisible glass,’ which is used in today’s camera lenses, telescopes, picture frames, and so on.

Born: January 10, 1898, Schenectady, New York, USA

Died: October 12, 1979, Schenectady, New York, USA

The ‘tigress’ of the man’s world was the first female scientist hired by General Electric. Here are a few amazing lesser-known aspects of her life:

  • Early Years: Katharine’s father was shot and killed in his home by a burglar in 1897, before she was born. Shortly after Katharine’s birth, her mother and older brother George Jr. relocated to New York City.
  • Gifted: Katharine earned a BA in Physics from ‘Bryn Mawr College’ in 1917, demonstrating her aptitude for science and mathematics.
  • General Electric connection: Irving Langmuir, her father’s colleague, encouraged Katharine to continue her studies before joining the General Electric Company. Seeking his advice, she enrolled in a master’s degree programme at the University of Chicago where she studied the adsorption of gases on charcoal. In 1918, she earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago.
  • Her Invention saved many lives: Her invention of the gas mask saved many soldier’s lives during World War I.
  • After receiving a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, Katharine Blodgett became the first woman hired by General Electric as a research scientist. She collaborated frequently with Irving Langmuir who had pioneered a technique for creating single-molecule thin films on the surface of water.
  • In 1924, Blodgett was accepted as a physics doctoral student at Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England. Her doctoral dissertation was about the behavior of electrons in ionized mercury vapor. In 1926, Katharine Blodgett became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University.
  • ‘Invisible glass’: Katharine Blodgett re-teamed up with Irving Langmuir and invented a method for layering thin films by dipping a metal plate into water coated with an oil layer. In 1938, she was successful in inventing “invisible” glass by layering film on both sides of a sheet of glass until the visible light reflected by the layers cancelled out the visible light reflected by the glass.
  • Gone with the Wind was the first major colour film to be projected using Blodgett’s lens and coating, and its crystal-clear cinematography wowed audiences when it was released in 1939.
  • Langmuir described Katharine Blodgett as a ‘gifted experimenter‘ with a rare combination of theoritical and pratical ability.
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  • Later, during the World War II, she focused her attention on military applications such as smokescreen machine and aeroplane deicing.
  • Apart from being an intense scientist, she had also acted in her town’s theatre group and has also volunteered for many charitable and civic organisations.
  • In 1963, Katharine Burr Blodgett retired from General Electric and became a role model for female physicists and scientists all over the world.
  • The born physicist devoted her whole life to science and never got married. Her path-breaking discoveries have led to the invention of Camera lenses, telescopes etc.
  • Awards and Recognition: In 1945, Katharine Burr Blodgett was awarded the ‘achievement Award’ by the renowned ‘American Association of University Women’. She also received the Photographic Society of America’s Progress Medal in 1972 among many other awards.

The post is a part of a B’day Series where we celebrate the birthday of renowned personalities from Tech Industry, very frequently. The series includes Entrepreneurs, C-level Executives, innovators or a renewed leaders who moved the industry with their exponential skill set and vision. The intent is to highlight the person’s achievements and touch base the little known, but interesting, part of his life. You can see the list of all earlier celebrated tech personalities, including Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayor, Sean Parker, Andy Rubin, Julian Assange, Sir Richard Branson, Sergey Brin by following this link or subscribe to your daily newsletter.

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