Celebrating Helen Malsed, toy inventor

slinkydogNo matter what decade you blasted through childhood, you know the work of Helen Herrick Malsed. She was an innovator and inventor with a knack for listening to children, and her work continues to charm the kid in everyone.

The Slinky was already a popular toy in the 1950s, but Helen overheard her young son wondering aloud how it would look with wheels and went to work planning a prototype. She pitched her pull toy idea through the mail to James Industries, who loved it and made the Slinky Dog and the Slinky Train into a reality. After decades as a staple of playrooms across the country, her pull toy doggie achieved animation superstardom when he was included in the “Toy Story” movies. “Slink” was introduced to new generations of kids, making him just as loved by six-year-olds today as he was nearly sixty years ago when he first appeared on the shelves.

malsedpatentMalsed was a college dropout, forced to quit her education when her father went bankrupt during the Great Depression. She had a sharp, creative mind, and even though she followed the traditional path of marriage, children and homemaking in the 1950s, that intellectual talent bubbled forth.

“She was always thinking up things,” her son said in Malsed’s Seattle Times obituary. “She was just exceptionally creative and an incredible speller and grammarian. She read every inch of print, even the classifieds, in both Seattle papers every day.”

In total, Malsed created over two dozen toys and games, including Fisher-Price Snap-Lock Beads and many other toys for different companies. According to varying reports, she earned approximately $1 million from her ideas, was the major reason James Industries expanded operations numerous times, and it all began with an idea in the mail.

Malsed passed away on this day in 1998 at the age of 88, but her legacy lives on.

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Why Cat Grant is just as important as Supergirl

Photo: CBS

Photo: CBS

Monday’s premiere of Supergirl on CBS proved that people are willing to watch a female-led superhero show, but there’s more going on besides the adorable, plucky girl with the House of El crest on her chest. Admittedly, the premiere hits the girl power message with all the speed and force of a daughter of Krypton, and well they should. The waitress in the diner scene remarks that finally her daughter will have “someone to look up to” and out here in the real world, beyond National City, scores of little girls will dress up in red and blue and pretend to save civilization.

That’s awesome, but a girl doesn’t have to grab a cape to tap into this show’s female power. While Kara Danvers whips off her glasses and fights crime, Cat Grant, Kara’s boss and the head of CatCo, is kicking butt in her own way. She’s an entrepreneur who makes tough decisions and is completely comfortable in her own skin. Not only that, she expects the same from Kara, as noted in the scene where her secretly super assistant protests the name “Supergirl.”

“What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’?” she asks. “I’m a girl, and your boss, and powerful and rich and hot and smart. If you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”

She knows she’s attractive, shooting the “she doesn’t know she’s beautiful” trope in the face with a bazooka, and she has brains and she doesn’t need your approval, thank you very much. She also expects those around her to step up, and re-evaluates their worth once they do, as she tells Kara “If you can’t take credit when you do something well, you’ll be at the bottom of the pile forever.”

Supergirl’s sweet, innocent attitude is wonderful, and she’s a lovely role model. But any girl who grows up with the confidence of Cat Grant could actually change the world and make sure women finally earn as much as men.  There are girls who aim to be princesses and superheroes and that’s fine. There are also girls like my friend’s young daughter who grabs Mom’s pink Coach bag and pretends to be a CEO closing a global deal on a cell phone before jetting off to Europe. That’s even better. Because that dream can come true.

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‘Star Trek’ legend gets closer look at the final frontier

nichellenichols‘Star Trek’ legend Nichelle Nichols moved one step closer to her iconic role of Uhura on Tuesday when she flew aboard NASA’s SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The science center is built aboard a modified Boeing 747, and is the world’s biggest flying observatory, boasting a telescope that views the skies through an open door in the aircraft.

Nichols even participated in a Twitter Q&A during the flight, discussing details about the tech of the telescope and the craft itself, noting that the cabin was pressurized so they didn’t notice altitude changes even though the observatory door is open at 37,000 feet, and answering a fan who asked if she planned to taunt William Shatner about being closer to space than he was. (“I sure am!”)

She was also asked a question near and dear to most geek girls’ hearts concerning how to get more females and people of color involved in STEM careers.

“I think science has to be taught in schools as an exciting topic to children so that they can become more engaged as adults,” she replied.

The SOFIA flight is the culmination of a decades-long partnership with NASA, since Nichols has been active in encouraging minorities to be part of the organization’s space program. Her work both on and off the screen helped two women pioneers, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, achieve their dreams of going into space.  When asked if her ground-breaking role on ‘Star Trek’ sparked her interest in space travel, she replied that she’s always had a passion for space. Here’s wishing she has many more years of sharing that passion with generations to come.

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Tip of the Hat to James Tiptree, Jr.

tiptreeJames Tiptree Jr. was a science fiction author in the 1960s and 1970s but the author wasn’t a junior, a Tiptree or even a James. That was the male pen name for Alice B. Sheldon, who was born this day in Chicago, 1915. Sheldon was a well-traveled child who, by age seven, racked up a trip to Africa in her life experiences. She went on to write, paint, earn a degree in experimental psychology, conduct photo-intelligence for the Army Air Forces and later join the CIA.

That list alone would make her notable, especially since women’s right to vote was newly awarded in 1920 and society still expected women to stay at home and tend to their families until the labor shortages during World War II.  Sheldon had written columns and reviews occasionally, but she wanted to delve deeper into the science fiction world. That world was mainly written by men. She knew she would face gender bias and she wanted success more than attention, so she picked her new last name from the label on a marmalade jar and constructed her new identity. As Tiptree, she wrote tech-savvy, hard sci-fi short stories, and was seen as a man’s man with a keen sense into the woman’s mind. Since her life thus far had been comprised of typically male experiences like guns, strategy and the military, it was the only way she could follow the old literary axiom, “Write what you know.” She did, with authority and determination, and earned the respect of the science fiction field in the process, producing more than 60 short stories, novellas and novelettes. Her story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” won a Nebula Award in 1977 and was a co-winner of the Hugo Award that same year.

Her ruse worked until 1976 when she made a comment about the passing of her mother, also a writer, and her true identity was discovered. She continued writing under the Tiptree name and an additional name, Raccoona Sheldon, until her death in 1987. Five years later, the James Tiptree,Jr. Award was created to honor her, and is presented each year for a science fiction or fantasy work that explores how the world understands gender. Although Sheldon became Tiptree because , in her words from an 1983 interview, “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some **** occupation,” she still managed to make history and break new ground.

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Baroness de Laroche: They couldn’t take the sky away from her

baronessdelarocheNot only is this International Women’s Day, it’s a day to celebrate Elise Raymonde Deroche, also known as Baroness de Laroche. On this day in 1910, de Laroche was the first woman ever to receive a pilot’s license for an airplane.

Born in 1882 in France, she had an early passion for mechanical things, including motorcycles and cars, and took to the skies as a balloonist before the first planes came along. Her forthright manner and engineering knowledge resulted in others bestowing the title of “Baroness” to her; Baroness de Laroche took the name and flew with it, attending gatherings of aviators in places like Egypt, Hungary and Russia, where she flew in a challenging demonstration on a small aviation ground before the Czar and received his personal congratulations afterward.

“He asked what my feelings had been, and I was able to assure him that his presence in the first place, and the houses and the landing ground, which was only 30 meters wide, in the second, had brought my heart into my mouth,” she later told Colliers magazine.

Although she would later set world records in the air, she was grounded during World War I because the military believed flying was too risky for female pilots. Instead, she became a driver, often transporting officers to and from the battlefield front lines, a job that was only slightly less dangerous than flying.

After the war, de Laroche was again in her favorite place among the clouds as part of her new goal to become the first female test pilot. She died doing what she loved in 1919, when a training flight aboard an experimental craft crashed. Although she never fully realized her last goal, she still has a lofty place in aviation history and a statue in her honor at France’s Le Bourget Airport.

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Little geek girl complains about lack of female superheroes, DC turns her into one

Opinions are the universal tool in every geek’s toolbox, and 11-year-old Rowan Hansen put hers to good use when she noticed that DC Comics had far fewer girl superheroes, and that they wore less clothes than their male counterparts. She wrote a letter to DC outlining her concerns.

At first, DC responded to Rowan with a tweet, and then upped their response when the story went viral with suitably impressive gift basket of goodies including hard-to-find action figures of DC female characters, and original art depicting Rowan into a superhero herself.

Speaking of her favorite, Wonder Woman, on NBC’s Today show,  she said “It would be nicer if she didn’t wear a bathing suit all the time.”

In both her television appearance and her letter, she eloquently made her case for quality and quantity in the DC universe. We bet if DC needs some good storylines for their newest hero, the real Rowan should be able to help them with that, too.

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Drop the Bass, Get Into Space

Do you finally have Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” out of your head? Prepare for the tune to orbit your brain a few more times with this clever parody by the intern team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Instead of addressing the size of someone’s booty, this group addresses the size of the universe. Bonus points for a great mix of guys and gals, so everyone can be inspired by the first flight of Orion.

All together now, “We’re bringing rockets baaaaaack….”

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