Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Sybilla Masters, American Inventor

Sybilla Righton Masters (d.  23 August 1720)


I just ran across a reference to the colonial woman Sybilla Righton Masters, an inventor who received two patents. Well, that's not entirely correct--although she did invent a corn mill and a new fabric, as a woman she could not patent her inventions in her own name. And so the patents were issued to her husband.

Patent drawings for
Masters's corn mill
Sybilla Righton was the daughter of William Righton and Sarah Murrell. Her place of birth is unclear--her Quaker father immigrated from Bermuda in 1687, and Sybilla, the second child born to the couple, may have been born there or on her father's new planation in Delaware Township, in the colony of West New Jersey. The first record of Sybilla dates to 1692, when she was a witness on behalf of her father. 

Sybilla Righton married Thomas Masters, a Quaker merchant, at some point between 1693 and 1696, moving with him to Philadelphia. There, in addition to raising her four children, she invented a corn processing mill that produced a corn meal she called Tuscarora Rice. Her mill pulverized corn rather than grinding it.

She also invented a new fabric worked out of straw and palmetto, ideal for making products like hats and bonnets.

In 1712, she traveled to England to obtain patents for her inventions. While waiting, and since she had been granted a monopoly for the importation of palmetto leaf, she opened a store in London selling hats, bonnets, and chair coverings made from her straw and palmetto fabric. 

On 25 November 1715, letters of patent for her corn mill were issued in her husband's name, Patent #401, a patent for "Cleaning and Curing the Indian Corn Growing in the several Colonies in America." While the patent was issued to Thomas Masters, the letters of patent did note it was for “a new invention found out by Sybilla, his wife.”

On 18 February 1716, letters of patent for her process of weaving straw and palmetto were issued, Patent #403, for "Working and Weaving in a New Method, Palmetto Chip and Straw for Hats and Bonnets and other improvements of that Ware." Again, the patent was issued to Thomas Masters, not Sybilla, the letter of patent noting it was for “a new way of working & staining in straw, & the plat & leaf of the palmetto tree, & covering & adorning hats & bonnets in such a manner as was never before done or practiced in England or any of our plantations.”

When she returned to Philadelphia, Thomas Masters petitioned for recognition of "her" British patents, which were then reissued, since the Pennsylvania colony was now approving its own patents. 

Sibylla Masters remained the only woman to have patented an invention until 1793, when Hannah Wilkinson Slater became the first woman in the United States to be issued a patent--for a cotton thread to be used in her husband's factories. 

Slater, too, seems little recognized. According to a comprehensive report issued by the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor  in 1923, not a single patent was issued to a woman in the nineteen years following the 1790 enactment of the U.S. patent law (10,000 patents were issued to men during those years). The report claims that the first patent issued to a woman occurred in 1809--when a patent was issued to Mary Kries. Her patent was for weaving straw with silk. Most online sites still indicate that Mary Kries was the first U..S. woman to receive a patent.

Over the course of the next twenty-five years, fewer than a "score" of patents were issued to women. 

In 1921, the lastest figures in 1923 report, women in the U.S. were issued 566 of the 37,335 U.S. patents granted that year--1.5 percent.

For an extended entry on Sybilla Masters, see vol. 2 of Notable American Women