If I asked you to name, from the top of your head, a popular female engineer, could you do it? Technology is already thought of as a predominantly male-dominated sector even in 2014. However, there have been many women throughout history who have contributed significantly to different engineering fields, while possibly facing sexism and social obstacles to doing so.
So, for kids, let’s hear it! Here is a notable collection of forward-thinking women who, through engineering history, have smashed through challenges to blaze a glamorous trail:
1. Edith Clarke
Edith Clarke became the first woman to receive a degree in electrical engineering from the Institute of Technology in Massachusetts in 1918. Edith worked at General Electric from 1919 until 1945, demonstrating some serious employee loyalty, becoming a salaried electrical engineer after just two years of employment (quite an achievement for a woman at this time).
She obtained her first patent for the Clarke Calculator in 1921 – a device used to solve problems with electric power transmission line problems. She went on to teach electrical engineering for 10 years at the University of Texas, making her the first female electrical engineering professor in the United States.
2. Emily Roebling
Emily Roebling is proof that a great and gutsy woman stands behind any good man.
Roebling never wanted to become an engineer, so it’s funny that she’s credited with being at the forefront of one of the greatest engineering feats of her time. During the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, she was best known for her role as Chief Engineer.
Her position arose when her husband, who was in charge of the building of the bridge, became ill and bed-ridden. Roebling assumed the role of ‘first woman field engineer’ by taking one for the team and became responsible for day-to-day project management, transmitting her husband’s data to the staff, and performing her studies of technical problems, materials, stress analysis, construction, and calculations.
3. Martha Coston
Martha Coston blazed her way very literally into books on engineering history. Coston is credited with developing a signaling flare device still used by the US Navy today, known as Coston Flares.
At the age of 21, Coston was left to support a widow with 4 children. There was some imaginative thinking called for in desperate times. She found a pattern that her late husband had left behind in his notebook for a pyrotechnic flare and set out to design a signal flare that would work. She worked on perfecting the concept for almost 10 years, which, if they were to be useful communication tools, needed to be vivid, multi-colored, and long-lasting. Finally, in 1859, she secured a patent, with the US Navy paying her $20,000 for the rights to flares – megabucks in the time of Martha.
4. Lillian Gilbreth
As a pioneer in the field of industrial engineering and psychology, Lillian Gilbreth is heralded and sometimes referred to as the ‘Mother of Modern Management’. She became the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and worked to develop kitchen and household appliance design with General Electric. “If the only way to enter a man’s field was through the kitchen door, as one of her sons wrote, that’s the way she would enter.” Interestingly, she appeared to be a horrible chef.
If you think it’s difficult to be a modern working mum, then spare a thought for Lillian to do it without the help of the time-saving technology of today. As a mother of twelve, with the California Monthly calling her a genius in the art of living,’ Gilbreth was known not only for her advancement of industrial management methods but also for her ability to balance a career and a family. Twelve babies? No wonder she was working constantly on ways to get things done at home faster.
5. Stephanie Kwolek
Chances are you’ve heard of Kevlar, five times as solid as steel, a stiff synthetic fiber. It is the key ingredient in the manufacture of bullet-proof vests, as well as a whole range of everyday items, including protective helmets, camping gear, snow skis, and cables, because of its resistance to corrosion and flames.
We have Stephanie Kwolek to thank, one of the first female research chemists, for this super-strong stuff. Kwolek is also the holder of 17 US patents for her other scientific projects, aside from the discovery of Kevlar.
On June 18 this year (2014), Kwolek died peacefully at the age of 90, perhaps with the reassuring awareness that her discovery went on to help save thousands of lives.
6. Mary Anderson
Give a nod to Mary Anderson the next time you’re driving through a downpour. We have to thank her, while technically not an automotive engineer, for one useful feature that is still used today on our motor vehicles – the windscreen wiper. Her design was simple: a rubber blade attached to a spring-loaded arm that would sweep clear rain, snow, and dust across the windscreen. Genius. Genius.
For all modern vehicles, windscreen wipers are standard, but the idea was not initially adopted by many in the automotive industry. When she attempted to sell the rights in 1905, one company told her that “we do not consider it to be of the commercial value that would warrant its sale to our company.” The naysayers felt if they had to run the system and also see it moving in front of them, it would confuse drivers, and Mary’s patent expired before the wiper became widely adopted with the automotive industry’s boom.
7. Hedy Lamarr
Best known in the 1930s and 40s as a silver screen star, and better remembered for becoming the first woman to bare everything in one of the first sex scenes in the cinema, actress Hedy Lamarr proved she was much more than a stunning face. In reality, we probably wouldn’t have WiFi today if it wasn’t for Hedy (hello, why isn’t this woman a God?).
Oh-la-la-Lamarr, taking time out of her acting schedule, smashed myths by using engineering acumen ahead of her time to invent a US military remote-controlled communications system.
It’s this principle of frequency hopping that serves as the basis for the communication technologies of today. Hedy was meant to be heralded as the glamorous Steve Jobs of the 1940s, but when you’re a buxom beauty, it’s hard to take it seriously, and poor luck for Hedy, her patent ran out before anyone understood the genius of her invention.
Women have been responsible for numerous clever inventions, from incredible engineering marvels to daily resources. More recently, international and local engineering organizations have been set up to support and inspire women to pursue careers in technical disciplines in the field of engineering. In engineering, although gender inequality remains, the gap is narrowing and women continue to succeed. Learn more.