Great Female Inventors

Eliza Lucas Pinckney

Valerie ThomasValerie Thomas was always interested in the mysteries of technology, spending time with her father, tinkering with electronics and reading book on electronics. It seemed unlikely that she would be pointed towards a career in science as her all-girls high school gave little guidance or direction in the areas of math or science. Nevertheless, her thirst for knowledge led her to pursue a career in science after her graduation from high school.

After enrolling at Morgan State University, Valerie met with great success, only one of two women to graduate with a degree in physics. She accepted a position as a data analyst with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and was eventually asked to manage the "Landsat" project, and image processing used to transmit space images from a satellite.

In 1976, Thomas attended a scientific seminar that would change her career focus. The exhibit demonstrated an illusion by fooling the viewer with the use of concave mirrors. The mirrors led the viewer to believe that a light bulb was glowing even after the bulb had been unscrewed from its socket. Like many at the seminar Valerie was fascinated by what she had seen, but unlike the others, she looked at the idea of creating illusions as a business opportunity. In 1977 Thomas began conducting experiments with flat mirrors and concave mirrors. With flat mirrors, the reflection of the object would seem to lie behind the surface of the glass. A concave mirror would appear to do just the opposite, providing a reflection that appeared to exist in front of the mirror, thus presenting a three-dimensional optical illusion. These images, Thomas felt, could present an unusual, but more accurate manner of representing video data. She viewed this process as a potential breakthrough for commercial television but also an innovative scientific tool for NASA's Landset project. Thomas applied for a patent for the process and it issued on October 21, 1980.

Valerie Thomas PatentThomas' invention closely resembled the technique of holographic production of image recording which employs coherent radiation and uses front wave reconstruction techniques which render the process unfeasible due to the complicated setup and vast expense. Parabolic mirrors, on the other hand, are able to render the same optical illusions by placing a concave mirror near the subject image and a second concave mirror at a remote site. In the description of her patent, the process is explained. "Optical illusions may be produced by parabolic mirrors wherein such images produced thereby are possessed with three dimensional attributes. The optical effect may be explained by the fact that the human eyes see an object from two view points separated laterally by about six centimeters. The two views show slightly different spatial relationships between near and near distant objects and the visual process fuses these stereoscopic views to a single three dimensional impression. The same parallax view of an object may be experienced upon reflection of an object seen from a concave mirror." ( The Illusion Transmitter would thus enable the users to render three-dimensional illusions in real-time.

Valerie ThomasValerie Thomas worked for NASA until her retirement in1995. While she was most famous for her work with the Illusion Transmitter she also designed programs to research Halley's comet and ozone holes. She received numerous awards for her service, including the GSFC Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. In her career, she showed that the magic of curiosity can often lead to concrete scientific applications for real-world problem-solving.


Female Inventors


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