If I asked you to name a famous female engineer off the top of your head, could you do it? Even in 2014, engineering is still thought of as a largely male-dominated industry. However, throughout history, there have been many women who have significantly contributed to various fields of engineering, while likely overcoming discrimination and social challenges to do so.
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So, let’s hear it for the girls! Here is a notable selection of forward-thinking females who have broken through barriers to blaze a glamorous trail though engineering history:
1. Edith Clarke
In 1918, Edith Clarke became the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Displaying some serious employee loyalty, Edith worked from 1919 until 1945 at General Electric, becoming a salaried electrical engineer after just two years of employment (quite an achievement for a woman at this time).
In 1921 she received her first patent for the Clarke Calculator - a device that was used to solve electric power transmission line issues. She went on to teach electrical engineering at the University of Texas for 10 years, making her the first female Professor of Electrical Engineering in the United States.
2. Emily Roebling
Emily Roebling is evidence that behind every good man stands a great and gutsy woman.
Roebling never planned on becoming an engineer, it’s funny then that she is credited with being at the helm of one of the biggest feats of engineering for her time. She is best known for her role as Chief Engineer during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883.
Her position came about when her husband, who was in charge of the bridge’s construction, became ill and bed-ridden. Taking one for the team, Roebling assumed the role of ‘first woman field engineer’ and became responsible for the day-to-day project management, relaying the information from her husband to the workers, and carrying out her own studies of technical issues, materials, stress analysis, construction and calculations.
3. Martha Coston
Martha Coston quite literally blazed her way into engineering history books. Coston is credited with creating a signalling flare system, known as Coston Flares, still used by the US Navy today.
At the age of 21, Coston was left a widow with four children to support. Desperate times called for some creative thinking. She discovered a design for a pyrotechnic flare that her late husband had left behind in his notebook, and set about designing a signal flare that would work. For nearly 10 years she worked on perfecting the design, which needed to be bright, multi-coloured and long-lasting if they were to be effective tools for communication. She finally achieved a patent in 1859, with the US Navy paying her $20,000 for the rights to the flares - mega bucks in Martha’s time.
4. Lillian Gilbreth
Lillian Gilbreth is heralded as a pioneer in the field of industrial engineering and psychology, and often referred to as the ‘Mother of Modern Management’. She became the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and worked with General Electric to improve the design of kitchen and household appliances. As one of her son’s wrote “If the only way to enter a man’s field was through the kitchen door, that’s the way she’d enter”. Interestingly though, she was apparently a terrible cook.
If you think being a modern working mum is tough, then spare a thought for Lillian doing it without the help of today’s time-saving technologies. As a mother of twelve, Gilbreth became recognised not just for her development of industrial management techniques, but also for her ability to combine a career and a family, with the California Monthly labelling her ‘a genius in the art of living’. Twelve kids? No wonder she was continuously working on ways to get things done faster at home.
5. Stephanie Kwolek
Chances are you’ve heard of Kevlar, a stiff synthetic material five times as strong as steel. Because of it’s resistance to corrosion and flames, it is the main element in the production of bullet-proof vests, as well as a whole range of everyday products including safety helmets, camping gear, snow skis and cables.
We have Stephanie Kwolek to thank for this super-strong material, one of the first female research chemists. Aside from the discovery of Kevlar, Kwolek is also the recipient of 17 US patents for her other research efforts.
Kwolek died peacefully on June 18 this year (2014), at the age of 90, likely with the comforting knowledge that her discovery went on to help save thousands of lives.
6. Mary Anderson
Next time you’re driving through a downpour, give a nod to Mary Anderson. Although technically not an automotive engineer, we have her to thank for one handy feature that is still used on our motor vehicles today - the windscreen wiper. Her idea was simple: a rubber blade attached to a spring-loaded arm which would sweep across the windscreen to clear rain, snow and dust. Genius.
Windscreen wipers are standard on all modern cars, however the concept wasn’t initially so accepted by many in the automotive industry. In fact, when she tried to sell the rights in 1905, she was told by one company “we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale”. The naysayers thought it would distract drivers if they had to operate the device and also see it moving in front of them, and Mary’s patent expired before the wiper became widely adopted with the boom of the automotive industry.
7. Hedy Lamarr
Better known as a star of the silver screen in the 1930s and 40s, and best remembered for being the first woman to bare all in one of cinema’s first sex scenes, actress Hedy Lamarr proved she was much more than a pretty face. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hedy, we likely wouldn’t have WiFi today (hello, why is this woman not a God?).
Taking time out of her acting schedule, Oh-la-la-Lamarr shattered stereotypes by using engineering acumen ahead of her time to invent a remote-controlled communications system for the US military.
It’s this frequency hopping theory that essentially serves as the basis for today’s communication technology. Hedy really should have been heralded as a sexy Steve Jobs of the 1940s, but it’s hard to be taken seriously when you’re a buxom bombshell, and bad luck for Hedy, her patent had run out before anyone realised the genius of her invention.
From impressive engineering marvels to everyday tools, women have been responsible for various clever creations. In more recent times, international and local engineering organisations have been established to promote the field of engineering to women and encourage them to pursue a career in technical disciplines. While gender disparity still persists in engineering, the gap is closing and women continue to excel in their chosen fields.
“There is no demand for women engineers, as such, as there are for women doctors; but there’s always a demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work” - Edith Clarke
Are you a female working in the field of engineering? Are there other female figures in engineering that have inspired you?