STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Mary Walton, Inventor

I love the title “inventor.”  Who wouldn’t want to create new things for a living?  It always sounds so exciting.  Of course, then I remember that it’s sort of what engineers do, too (when we’re not doing things like paperwork and spreadsheets and attending meetings).  You may not be able to major in inventing in college, but most STEM fields are fairly equivalent – computer scientists invent new software, games, even languages.  Engineers invent new technology and apply new research to make things work.  Pharmaceutical researches invent new medicines, and so on.  STEM fields are all creative fields that contribute new knowledge, ideas, and technology to society.

Today’s STEM role model, Mary Walton, was a creative inventor in the 19th century.  Nearly a century and a half later she is also still very relevant.  She was an early pioneer of technology designed to help solve the problem of pollution – and pollution is something we are keenly aware of in this year of record-breaking smog and unusual weather.

In 1879, Mary Walton was awarded a patent for a device to mitigate pollution from smokestacks by sending the smoke into a tank of water, which was then flushed through the sewer system.  Later, she applied the same technology for use on trains, reducing the coal smoke from locomotive engines.

In the 1800s, she shifted focus from air pollution to noise pollution and developed a way to reduce noise from the elevated trains that were becoming so prevalent in most major U.S. cities’ public transportation systems.  The trains rattled and clanged badly on the elevated tracks.  Working in her basement on a model first, Mary Walton found a creative solution to dampen the sound involving a wood box for the tracks to rest in that was lined with cotton, then tar, and finally sand.

Both of her innovative pollution solutions were awarded patents, and she eventually sold the train one to the Metropolitan Railroad of New York City.

Very little is known about the life of Mary Walton, but she seems to me to have been a very practical person.  She was a city dweller in New York who was understandably sick of the air pollution and the noise pollution.  And she did something about it.  I wish we knew more about her, but I chose her as today’s role model because what we do know is that she was a creative, talented, and smart inventor, and the kind of person who saw a problem in her city, tackled it, and solved it.  Who knows how much worse the smog of the industrial revolution would have been without her?  And she must have overcome quite a few challenges to be taken seriously as a woman inventor in 19th century Manhattan.

Have you ever thought of inventing something?  What problem would you like to solve?


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