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Edith Clarke: Firsts of Female Engineering

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. Be prepared to see a bunch of 1's and E's, because this week's post is about the 1st female electrical engineer in the States – Edith Clarke.

 

Edith Clarke was born in 1883 in Howard County, Maryland into a family of 9 children. She grew up on a farm, being raised to one day make a good wife, but her vision of her future was vastly different. Edith wanted to be an engineer.

Losing both her parents at twelve led to her receiving some amount of inheritance, which she spent on education. She went to Vasser College, New York, to study mathematics and astronomy. After graduation, she taught maths and physics for a while but then returned to her dream by studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Over the summer, she began working at AT&T as a computer director. Edith liked the position so much that she did not come back to school in Wisconsin and stayed in New York working, studying at Columbia University by night. Years later, she enrolled at MIT and was the 1st woman there to earn an MS in electrical engineering.

Despite her high-quality education, Edith couldn't find work in her field, simply because she was a woman. She settled for a position at General Electric (GE) as a supervisor of a team of computers, but soon left to travel around Europe and teach at the Constantinople Women's College in Turkey.

After returning, GE offered her a position as an engineer, making her the 1st professional female electrical engineer in the States. She was the 1st woman to deliver a paper at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers' (AIEE) annual meeting, in which she presented calculations for the maximum power that large systems of lines could carry without instability. The institute awarded 2 of her later papers. From her lecture notes to GE engineers, she published a textbook on power engineering called 'Circuit Analysis of A-C Power Systems' which was used as the basis of education in the field for a long time. She retired from GE but couldn't resist coming back from retirement when the University of Texas in Austin offered her a teaching position, making her the 1st female professor of electrical engineering in the USA. There she spent 10 years teaching, before finally retiring in 1957 and dying 2 years later.

Edith Clarke was an electrical engineer who claimed many firsts in her career, succeeding in a male-dominated field during such sexist times, proving to us all that nothing is impossible when you set your mind on it.



 

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