The Engineering behind the Ironing Board

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author and a self-proclaimed “Science Evangelist.”  She is the creator of a podcast series called “Science Underground.” she joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss a Little Known African American Inventor, Sarah Boone.


Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and a self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She is the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss a little-known African-American inventor, Sarah Boone.

Sarah Boone.

We've got an iron in front of us.

Well, she was a dressmaker.


But she was also an inventor born in 1832, and got one of the first patents in 1892 for the ironing board.


Now, the ironing board looks a little different, but the idea of having a collapsible ironing board, one with a soft pad on the top, that's her.

She also had an additional arm for the sleeve, because, as a dressmaker, she wanted to make sure that her product looked wonderful, so she had a special design to add on top of it, but she did this as a woman who was 60 years old, and has one of the first patents in 1892.

An African-American woman?

African-American woman.

In this era?

In this era.

Getting a patent?


Born in the South -- you know, escaped the Civil War, landed in New Haven -- didn't even know how to read at age 48.

By 60, she could, and had a patent.

Those little facts kind of adding up to how groundbreaking that was at the time.


I mean, what do we know about how she thought about things?

Because she seems to have kind of that inventor gene or bug.

Well, if you read her patent, she definitely had an engineer's mind because she emphasized things like it has to be cheap, it has to be simple, it has to be convenient, it has to be efficient.

Those are the words that she specifically has in her -- and if you read a NASA patent, it's going to have the same kind of thinking.

So here it is, an African-American woman in 1892, thinking the same way, and, again, she was trying to solve a problem.

Before, when you ironed, you actually had to put a plank on top of two chairs, or you used a dining-room table.

It's incredible how for granted we take something as simple as an ironing board.


It's something we find in every hotel closet.

Every home. Every home.

Every home.

That's right.

How is it that stories like this kind of get buried underground, and what do we do to surface these?

Well, that's what I'm embarking on now.

I'm writing a book, but I actually stumbled on to this story about Sarah Boone 'cause she did this in New Haven, which is the town that I live in, and there's very little about her.

So I've actually talked to the mayor, and we're actually going to put something for Black History Month for her, but it is very much buried.

I'm looking at some Caucasian men, and I can tell you what they ate on Tuesday, but I can't get the birth certificate for Sarah Boone.

So it's also the structure that all this happened in, as well.

The impact of invention on the world today is massive, and it's people like Sarah who wanted to just solve a specific problem and just kind of set their mind to it, and say, 'I can build the better mousetrap, or an ironing board that never existed.'

That's right.

How do we get young people to kind of see these stories and realize that they have that capacity and potential of someone who didn't know how to read at 48 --


Let's say most kids today do know how to read.

Right. Right.

...that, look at that.

You've got a head start on her.

Imagine what she could have done if she had your skill set today.

That's right.

She'd be working on her Nobel Prize.

I think it's about reflection.

I think if kids can see -- you know, as that hidden figure and moment that we're in, if people can see the reflection that here it is, an African-American woman who was illiterate, had to work hard in the shadow of Yale University, and was still able to carve out some space and have her name out there and have a patent, you know, a government document in the 1890s, if we show kids that, we'll say like, 'What's stopping you?

Here she did it in the worst circumstances, and you have an environment that is much more supportive for innovation.'

You have the world's supercomputer likely in your pocket.

That's right. You do.

Your computer in your pocket is more technology than the Apollo 11.


So, what's stopping you?

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much.

Thank you.