In the late 1600s, the Enlightenment swept through Europe, bringing with it an explosion of invention and innovation. Although separated from Europe by the Atlantic Ocean, Sybilla Masters contributed to this outpouring of innovation by being the first English colonist to receive a royal patent.
Sybilla Masters was the mistress of a prosperous household in Philadelphia, but she made time to tinker with ideas on how to improve life in the colonies. After watching how Native women pounded corn with a mortar and pestle, Sybilla invented a corn gin that could do the same work with less human effort. In 1712, Sybilla sailed to London to get a patent for her invention. A patent is a document issued by the government that gives a person full rights over their invention.
Because she was a woman who lived under the English practice of coverture, Sybilla could not apply for the patent in her own name, so she submitted it in her husband’s name. Thankfully, her husband was proud of her work and supportive of her efforts. He insisted that she be listed as the true inventor in the government records. If he had not, her story would be lost to history. Sybilla was the only colonial woman to receive a patent from the English government.
This illustration is the drawing Sybilla Masters submitted to receive her patent for the corn gin in 1715. The first two pictures show different designs for the sheller, which would pound the corn until it was turned into meal. The top design is powered by an animal (probably a donkey), and the second is powered by running water. At the bottom is her drawing of the plans to bake the resulting corn meal in wooden trays.