Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) invented “invisible” glass, which GE loved to tout, but they didn’t bother to include her in their 1953 Science article celebrating “75 years of research at GE laboratories.” So let’s give her some of the celebrating she deserves.
Blodgett was born in Schenectady, New York. She never got to meet her father, who was murdered by a burglar shortly before she was born. She spent much of her childhood living in France with her mother and brother, returning to New York in 1912. After obtaining a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, she went to work as a research scientist at General Electric (GE) (the first woman to hold this position at GE’s Schenectady location). She would remain at GE for a long, successful career that included obtaining 8 patents, only leaving from 1924-1926 to study at Cambridge University, where she became the first woman to which they awarded a PhD in Physics.
Much of Blodgett’s work on surface films was performed with Irving Langmuir, who had served as a mentor since the two met when Blodgett toured GE while still an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr. Langmuir had developed a way to create soapy films that were only a single molecule thick (monomolecular) on a water surface and Blodgett figured out how to transfer these films from water onto solid surfaces. Blodgett continued working on these “Langmuir-Blodgett films,” inventing a technique that allowed her to deposit these layers on top of one another to build films of precise (and very thin) height. Why was this important? It allowed her to create films for glass with a thickness of ¼ of the wavelength of light, so that light that hit the glass and light that reflected back from it would cancel each other out – no glare! This reflection-cancelling glass (improved upon by later researchers to make more durable) has since been used in items such as camera lenses, eyeglasses, computer screens.
Blodgett’s numerous other inventions included a “color gauge” to measure the thickness of films and more effective gas masks (credited with saving many lives in World War II). Blodgett had a rich personal life including acting, gardening, writing poetry, and supporting other professional women. She retired from GE in 1963 after close to half a decade of innovation, and died in 1979.
Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution