Far too often, we think about invention as only taking place in neat contexts – within sterile labs and under ideal conditions. When we imagine these picture-perfect circumstances, the messiness of creativity and experimentation is largely forgotten. In fact, it’s typically during moments of spontaneity that originality flourishes and breakthroughs happen.
National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Marion Donovan is a powerful example of an inventor who thrived outside of traditional scientific settings. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1917 as Marion O’Brien, she grew up around machinery and invention. Her father and uncle invented the “South Bend lathe,” a tool used to grind automobile gears. From a young age, she spent a great deal of her free time in their manufacturing plant, instilling in her a lifelong love for innovation.
She attended Rosemont College in Philadelphia and graduated with a degree in English literature in 1939. Following graduation, she took a job in New York City as an assistant beauty editor at Vogue. A few years later, she married James Donovan and resigned from her position to start a family in Connecticut.
Though Donovan was no longer in the public workforce, the role of being a mother was still a full-time position. As anyone with a child knows, parenting is the kind of job that lasts well beyond the average nine-to-five and involves thankless work. Donovan’s experience with motherhood involved these kinds of efforts, and one of the routine tasks she faced ended up becoming inspiration for a lifetime of invention.
Frustrated by having to repeatedly change her daughter’s soiled cloth diapers – as well as her clothing and bed sheets – Donovan believed there had to be a better way to prevent diaper leaks from happening. Using material from a shower curtain, she cut and sewed pieces into a waterproof diaper cover. This led to a diaper cover made from breathable parachute cloth, which included an insert for an absorbent diaper panel and used snap fasteners instead of safety pins. Donovan called this product the “Boater” because she believed it “looked like a boat.”
Unlike the rubber pants used for diapering at the time, Donovan’s invention did not pinch the skin or cause irritation. When she attempted to sell her ingenious product to top manufacturers, however, she was met with ridicule. In a 1975 interview with Barbara Walters, Donovan explained, “I went to all the big names that you can think of, and they said, ‘We don’t want it. No woman has asked us for that. They’re very happy, and they buy all our baby pants.’ So, I went into manufacturing myself.”
In 1949, Saks Fifth Avenue began selling her Boaters in stores and they became an immediate success. By 1951, Donovan received a patent for the diaper cover and sold her company and rights to Keko Corporation that same year. At the time, she was working on an idea beyond cloth diapers: a disposable diaper that used absorbent paper. She was ignored by executives and it wasn’t until a decade later that Pampers® began mass-producing disposable diapers. Today, it’s estimated that 95% of babies wear disposable diapers.
Donovan continued to explore invention and use her curiosity to the fullest in the years that followed. She patented 20 inventions in her lifetime, including a 30-garment compact hanger, a soap dish that drained into the sink and an elastic cord that connected over the shoulder to the zipper of a dress. She also received a degree in architecture from Yale University in 1958 and eventually designed her own home in 1980.
Donovan’s many inventions improved everyday life for countless people – especially women. She viewed domestic settings as a space for innovation; her home was her lab and household items were her materials. Donovan’s ability to recognize common challenges in her life and use that understanding to innovate better solutions for others makes her a remarkable “mother of invention.”
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