STEAM in History: Lyda Newman

STEAM in History: Lyda Newman

​​Behind every great hairstyle is a great inventor. A trailblazing inventor and woman activist, Lyda Newman faced many challenges and barriers during her lifetime, including racism and gender discrimination. She is often remembered as an inspirational suffragist who fought for women of all races’ right to vote, but did you know she also invented and patented an improved version of the hairbrush?

Lyda Newman's unwavering determination to achieve something better revolutionized the beauty industry and empowered women of color to brush aside the limitations imposed on them.

The New Style of Women's Empowerment:

Around 1897, Lyda Newman, a young Black woman, started working as a hairdresser while living in Manhattan, New York. At that time, hairbrushes were not a widespread household tool. The thick animal hair used to create the bristles was expensive and difficult to maintain. Even the professionals took issue with the traditional design.

For example, it was difficult for hairdressers like Newman to work with many clients consecutively since the animal hair took a long time to dry and wasn’t suitable for managing all hair types. Newman aimed to create a brush that could address these issues and function exceptionally well with the thicker hair textures of African American people.

Her hairbrush design was groundbreaking. Newman’s brush used synthetic bristles instead of animal hair. This was not only more affordable but worked wonders in detangling a wide range of women’s hair types. The bristles were evenly spaced and able to pick up more dirt with each stroke. Better still, the handle could be detached from the brush, making cleaning much more convenient. It's not surprising hairdressers and women of every social class loved Newman’s design

After filling out her application, she was awarded a patent for her invention on November 15, 1898. According to census records, she was just 14 years old, making her one of the youngest inventors ever to be granted a patent. Her invention was so successful that it was still in use decades later.

But Newman was much more than just an inventor. She was also a fierce advocate for civil rights and women's rights. She was passionate about ensuring that everyone had access to the same opportunities and resources, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status. She was a dedicated leader in the women’s suffrage movement and inspired others to join her in the fight for equality.

Lyda made a lasting impact on the world through her innovative inventions and her unyielding commitment to social justice. While it is unknown when exactly she died, she is remembered as a role model for women and people of color everywhere.

Take Learners on a Patent Hunt!

Newman received her hairbrush patent when she was just 14 years old, making her one of the youngest inventors granted a patent in the United States.

Here’s a collaborative activity to try with today’s aspiring inventors! Encourage learners to consider the steps involved in obtaining a patent while developing their research and critical thinking skills.

Patent Hunt:

  1. Divide the class into groups and give each group a list of common household items, such as a pen, a stapler or a toaster. Instruct learners to research and determine whether each item has a patent, and, if so, who holds it.
  2. Have groups present their findings and share what they learned about the patent process. This may include the importance of researching prior patents, preparing patent applications or becoming familiar with patent laws.
  3. Challenge learners to create an original invention and have them go through the process of obtaining a patent for it.
Share Your Learners’ Patent Success!

Let us know what your learners discovered on their “Patent Hunt” in the comments section below!

Click for free printable posters and trading cards about Lyda Newman and more STEAM role models to share with your learners!

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More STEAM Role Models:

Learn how Leonardo Da Vinci's innovative spirit continues to shape and influence our modern world. Learn more about the collaborative lessons featured in Da Vinci Camp and inspire learners to think beyond traditional limits.

Learn about more inspiring, diverse STEAM role models:

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Author: Jessica Ventre

An experienced elementary educator and science instructional coach, Jessica’s passion for STEM instruction and student-led learning is always at the forefront of her lessons and professional development workshops.


Lyda Newman Biography, Life, Interesting Facts. (2019, June 6). Famous Birthdays by SunSigns.Org. Retrieved April 15, 2023, from

Lyda Newman. (n.d.). Lemelson-MIT. Retrieved April 15, 2023, from,be%20more%20hygienic%20and%20efficient

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