In 1945, Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler created a garage-based manufacturing business. They named it by combining their first names, Mattel. First, they manufactured picture frames. Using the leftover pieces of wood, Elliot built dollhouses that sold well. Soon, Matson dropped out of the business leaving it solely owned by Handler and his wife, Ruth.

Ruth and Matt created a toy ukulele that sold well, the company’s first major success. In 1955, they licensed the rights for popular “Mickey Mouse Club Products.” Licensing pop-culture characters for toys was an emerging and popular business model. In 1955, they patented the toy cap gun. The business wasn’t spectacular but the Handler’s were doing well.

Dolls during this era were babies or children. However, Ruth noticed her own daughter, Barbara, playing with dolls and assigning them adult roles. In 1956, the family took a trip in Europe and purchased a German toy doll called Bild Lilli that looked like a small woman rather than a child. Originally marketed to adults, Lilli was more popular with children.

Back in the US, Ruth decided to make her own grown-up doll. The doll should look fun, she reasoned, rather than realistic. It had an unusually large bust, a slim waist, and full-size hips. Ruth named it Barbie, after her daughter Barbara.

On March 9, 1959, Barbie was introduced to the world at the American International Toy Fair in New York. She wore a black-and-white one piece and came in blonde or brunette. The “Teen-age Fashion Model” was wildly successful, selling about 350,000 during her first year. Ruth died in 2002 and Eliott in 2011 but, in 2019 at 60 years-old, Barbie is still very much alive.

Milking Machine

Milking machine safely and effectively milk cows. They vastly reduce the cost of milking a cow.


Nobody likes milking cows by hand. It’s time consuming, laborious, and they poop.

Early attempts at something better involved inserting catheters that would let the milk slide out. However, if not used perfectly these hurt the animal. Catheters often infected cow udders. This caused the co-mingling of infected and good milk leading to sickness in people. American Agriculturist magazine, the trade journal way back when refused advertisements for milking catheters.

Eventually, suction-based machines, that work more like hands, came along. American Anna Baldwin patented an early suction-based milker that, while sub-optimal, was a substantive step on the way towards the modern milking machine. S.W. Lowe built on Baldwin’s machine, sucking from four teats at once.

Finally, L.O. Colvin, cited as “America’s most famous inventor of early milking machines” created a hand-cranked machine that mimicked hands, the modern milking machines.

Women Inventors

A brief digression: we study countless historic innovations, the ones we write about and many more we do not believe are eligible for inclusion. We have never seen so many innovation histories where the inventors use initials for their first name. Way back when milking cows was often a women’s job, milkmaids. We know that Anna Baldwin created and patented one early machine. However, we believe many of these other initials-only inventors were also women. Using initials hid the fact from patent applications, news articles, and men who purchase farm equipment. With this in mind, we refer to these inventors using feminine pronouns.

Colvin’s milk machine received favorable press and sold widely. She sold the English patent rights for $5,000. This was an enormous amount of money in 1860 when the average wage for a skilled laborer was $8/week.

Using iterative development, the modern milking machine came into being. Hand-cranks operated earlier one’s whereas later versions relied on electricity. However, they all operated with a similar mechanism.

At least one publication raises a good question about why it took 50 years from the earliest patents to a fully-functional machine when the grain harvester moved much faster. The answer, they speculate, is that cows are not wheat: they are living animals farmers refused to experiment upon.

Sit-Flat Paper Bags

Sure, sit-flat paper bags are not the condensing steam engine, the telegraph, pneumatic tools, or the dynamo generator but they represent something new: a woman entrepreneur.

After realizing the hassle of bags that would not stand Margaret Knight set out to create a machine for a bag with a flat bottom. She worked with three machinists.

The third machinist, Charles Anan, stole and patented the idea. Anan had asked to see what she was working on and outright ripped it off. During litigation the other machinists testified, Knight showed her notes, and Anan could not entirely explain his patent. Knight won and was awarded her patent in 1871.

She built a large bag business and spent her life making various other innovations, never marrying.

She worked hard: “At the age of seventy, [Knight] is working twenty hours a day on her 89th innovation,” reported the New York Times on Oct. 19, 1913. She died in 1914 with an estate worth $275.05.