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Shelley Latham Community Manager Linkengineering.org

18 Women Engineers Who Made History

PostedThursday, March 8, 2018 at 4:55 PM

18 Women Engineers Who Made History

Since the beginning of civilization women have been solving problems, creating, and building alongside men. Recent research suggests that the earliest cave paintings were very likely painted by women. However, since history has been primarily written by male historians, these contributions have been largely under-reported. In worst case scenarios, men have taken credit for the achievements of innovative women. To say that hundreds of years of gender stereotypes and cultural limitations have put a damper on women’s success in STEM fields would be an understatement.

And yet, some pioneering females have managed to push past the obstacles and prove that women make excellent engineers. Some did it over the objections of their family, but most had the support of their parents or husbands. Some created opportunity by solving domestic engineering problems, others forged a path in traditionally male professions. Some of the women eschewed marriage and children to focus on their careers, others had large families. Some of them claim to have never faced discrimination, others took every suggestion that they couldn’t do the work as a challenge to exceed expectations. What they all have in common is a fierce work ethic and a passion to improve the world they live in.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we have selected a few inspiring examples.

Mary Coston crop1. Martha Coston (1826-1904)

Martha J. Coston eloped with a naval scientist when she was a teenager. When he died, six years later, Martha was left with four children and in financial hardship. She found draft plans for a pyrotechnic (signal) flare in her husband’s notebook. And though she had no formal education, she developed the idea into a workable signal for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communications that could be used in color combinations and was bright, durable, and long-lasting. It took several years and many attempts before she landed on the right chemical and mechanical solutions. She received her patent for her Pyrotechnic Night Signals on April 5, 1859. The U.S. Navy then paid her $20,000 for the patent rights to the flares. They also awarded Martha the contract to manufacture them. Martha's flares served as the basis of a system of communication that helped save lives and win battles during the Civil War. Some historians have said that the signal flares helped the North to win the war. Her system of long-lasting signal flares is still in use today.

Helen Blanchard crop2. Helen Augusta Blanchard (1840-1922)

Helen Augusta Blanchard was often referred to as "Lady Edison" and was one of the great inventors of the industrial era. She held 28 patents, 22 of which involved improvements to sewing machines. Modern sewers have Blanchard to thank for the first zigzag sewing machine. Her 1873 zigzagger is now on display at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Other remarkable inventions by Blanchard are self-taking hypodermic needles and a surgical needle.

Ellen Swallow Richards3. Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842-1910)

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards was the first woman admitted to MIT. Because the school was not admitting female students, she was accepted as a “special student” with restrictions: no studying with male students, no shared lab space with male students, and to ensure retention of her womanliness, she would mend, straighten and do secretarial tasks as needed.  After earning a Master’s degree at Vassar, she continued her studies at MIT for two more years. She did not get her Ph.D. because the professors at MIT did not want the first Ph.D. in Chemistry from MIT to go to a woman.

In 1875, Ellen married Robert Richards, who was the head of the mining engineering department at MIT. Her work with her husband on the chemistry of ore analysis led to her being the first woman elected to be a member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering.

She went on to open the Women's Laboratory at MIT, where women were taught basic and industrial chemistry, biology, and mineralogy. Richards became the head of the science section of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home where she developed the field of Home Economics and Domestic Science to improve safety and health standards for food preparation and household management.

Kate Gleason4. Kate Gleason (1865-1933)

Gleason began her career at her father's machine-tool factory after studying mechanical arts at Cornell University as a “special student” and Engraving and Mechanics at the Silby Institute. By 1893, she and her father had designed and perfected a machine that could produce beveled gears quickly and cheaply. With Kate's help, the factory became the leading U.S. producer of gear cutting machinery prior to World War I.

In addition to being the first woman to serve as president of a national bank, Gleason had many business interests. She developed a new method for pouring concrete and, in 1921, began selling low-cost concrete box houses in East Rochester, New York. As a result of her work, Kate became the first female member of the American Concrete Institute.

Kate Gleason was a heavy supporter of women’s suffrage and never married. She left an estate of $1.4 million for charity and education. One of the beneficiaries was the Rochester Institute of Technology, who named their College of Engineering after her.

 “What you call freedom is still nothing but choosing how to steer straight into the heart of what chooses you.” --  Kate Gleason

Lillian Gillbreth crop5. Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972)

Lillian Moller Gilbreth was an inventor, author, industrial engineer, industrial psychologist, and mother of twelve children. (The book Cheaper By the Dozen is about her family.) A pioneer in ergonomics, Gilbreth patented many kitchen appliances including an electric food mixer, shelves inside refrigerator doors, and the famous trash can with a foot-pedal lid-opener. Lillian Gilbreth is best known for the research she did with her husband to help workers in industry. Their Time & Motion Studies supported work simplification and industrial efficiency. Lillian Gilbreth was one of the first scientists to recognize the effects of stress and lack of sleep on the worker.

After the death of her husband Lillian Gilbreth continued their work and turned her attention to the household worker and increasing the efficiency of kitchen appliances. Lillian Gilbreth was an industrial engineer for General Electric and worked on improving kitchen designs. Gilbreth interviewed over 4,000 women to design the proper height for stoves, sinks, and other kitchen fixtures. In 1966, she became the first woman to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Nora Stanton6. Nora Stanton Blatch Barney (1883-1971)

In 1905, Nora Stanton Blatch Barney became the first woman to graduate from Cornell University with a Civil Engineering degree. That same year, she became the first female member, with junior status, of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Her contributions to engineering include hydraulics thesis research at Cornell University’s Beebe Lake Hydraulics Laboratory, which solved a key problem in hydrodynamics. Stanton Blatch Barney went on to contribute to the development of early radio broadcast technology alongside her first husband, Lee De Forest, and worked for many years as an engineer in New York City, including for the city’s Board of Water Supply. She also worked throughout her life to improve civil rights and women’s rights, following the lead of her grandmother and pioneer of the suffragist movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection recently honored Nora by bestowing her name to a $30 million tunnel boring machine to be used to repair the city’s Delaware Aqueduct. And, 99 years after her application for full membership was denied because of her gender, the American Society of Civil Engineers posthumously advanced Nora Stanton Blatch Barney to the status of ASCE Fellow.

Edith Clarke7. Edith Clarke 1883-1959

Edith Clarke was the first woman to earn an Electrical Engineering degree from MIT. From 1919 until her first retirement in 1945, Edith worked as an engineer for General Electric. In 1921, she received a patent for her "graphical calculator." This device was used to solve electric power transmission line problems. In 1926, Edith became the first woman to deliver a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. In 1947, Edith went to teach electrical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. She was the first woman to teach engineering there. Edith's accomplishments were recognized in 1954 by the Society of Women Engineers Achievements Award "in recognition of her many original contributions to stability theory and circuit analysis."

 “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 Clark

Olive Dennis8. Olive Dennis (1885-1957)

Dennis was only the second woman to graduate from Cornell University. After she finished her civil engineering degree, Dennis completed a master's degree in mathematics and astronomy from Columbia University.  Dennis went to work for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) to design bridges. As her talent quickly became apparent, she progressed to a new position: "Engineer of Service." Dennis was tasked with improving passenger experience. During her time with B&O, Dennis introduced many of the comforts we take for granted today: partially-reclining seats, passenger-controlled window sashes, air conditioned coaches, stain resistant upholstery, dimming ceiling lights and more. Olive Dennis became the first female member of the American Railway Engineering Association.

 “No matter how successful a business may seem to be, it can gain even greater success if it gives consideration to a woman’s viewpoint.”   -- Olive Dennis

9. Alice Parker (18??-19??)

Underscoring the difficulty of honoring the contributions of African American women prior to the Civil Rights Movement, there are not many details about Alice Parker’s life. She was born in Morristown, NJ and graduated from Howard University in 1910. What we do know, is that Parker applied for and was granted a patent on December 23, 1919 for a gas heating system that was a precursor to modern home central heating.  While not the first gas furnace patent, Parker’s design showed a unique multiple burner system, each of which could be individually controlled. Her patent also includes the idea of using air ducts to deliver the heat to different parts of a home. This structure was an important precursor to the modern heating zone system and thermostats that continue to heat most homes today.

Katharine blodgett10. Katherine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979)

Katharine Burr Blodgett was the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge, in 1926. After receiving her master's degree, she was hired by General Electric, where she invented low-reflectance "invisible" glass. Once introduced, nonreflective lenses were used for projectors and cameras by the post-war movie industry. Blodgett's glass was also used for submarine periscopes and airplane spy cameras during World War II.

Dr. Blodgett was issued eight U.S. patents during her career. She was the sole inventor on all but two of the patents, working with Vincent J. Schaefer as co-inventor. Blodgett published over 30 technical papers in various scientific journals and was the inventor of poison gas adsorbents, methods for deicing aircraft wings, and improving smokescreens.

Irmgard Flügge-Lotz crop11. Irmgard Flügge-Lotz (1903-1974)

Flügge-Lotz joined the Stanford faculty in 1950 as the university’s first female professor of engineering. A professor of applied mechanics and of aeronautics and astronautics, emeritus, she was the first woman elected as a fellow by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and received the Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers.

She made significant advancements in methods for the prediction of aerodynamic pressures on bodies, wings and turbine blades, some of which were adopted as standard procedures throughout the world. In automatic control theory, she developed the first theory of discontinuous, or on-off, control systems. Flügge-Lotz published more than 50 technical papers and wrote two books.

Grace Hopper12. Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was one of the first programmers in the history of computers. Her belief that programming languages should be as easily understood as English influenced the development of one of the first programming languages called COBOL, which is still in use today.

While an instructor of mathematics and physics at Vassar, she continued her studies in mathematics at Yale University, where she earned an MA in 1930 and a PhD in 1934.  She then worked as a research fellow at Harvard, becoming the 3rd person to program the Mark 1 computer under a Navy contract. In the 1950s, Grace started working for the newly formed Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as the senior mathematician on the team developing a new computer called UNIVAC I. It was at this position that she created what is called the “A compiler.” In computer programming, a compiler is a program that transforms source code written from one computer language into another, usually less complex, language

In the course of her lifetime, Grace Hopper was awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities around the world, along with numerous awards and honors. She was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in 1973.

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, "We've always done it this way." I try to fight that. That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”  -- Grace Hopper

Esther Conwell13. Esther Conwell (1922-2014)

Esther Conwell thought she would use her physics degree to be a high school physics teacher, because those were the only women in science she had encountered. With the encouragement of her professor, however, Conwell went on to graduate school eventually receiving a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago.

Conwell’s career spanned 62 years of research into semiconductors, organic crystals, conducting polymers, and DNA. Conwell’s research--exploring how electric fields affect the movement of electrons in semiconductors-- earned her an uncommon triple membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering, among the highest honors a scientist or engineer can receive. She received the National Medal of Science in 2009, was chosen as one of Discover magazine’s Top 50 Women in Science in 2002, and received the Edison Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1997 – the first woman ever to receive that award.

Stephanie Kwolek14. Stephanie Louise Kwolek (1923-2014)

As a child Kwolek loved fashion and textiles. Instead of pursuing a career in clothing design, she studied chemistry in college. After graduating, she began working for DuPont. While at DuPont Kwolek discovered liquid crystalline polymers, which resulted in a fiber that was stronger than steel but very lightweight and flexible. DuPont used this to create  the product Kevlar. Kevlar is used to make bulletproof vests, radial tires, airplane fuselages and fiber optic cables. For her accomplishments as a research scientist she received the National Medal of Technology in 1996 and was named to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003. The American Chemical Society awarded her the Perkin Medal in 1997 and she was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in 2001.

“What I love about my work is that I have the opportunity to be creative every day.”  -- Stephanie Kwolek

Ruth Davis15. Ruth Davis (1928-2012)

After becoming the first woman to earn a PhD in mathematics at the University of Maryland, Ruth Davis began working for the Navy, where she created the first computer codes for nuclear reactor design as well as some of the first computer software for defense programs and space operations.

At the age of 27, Davis became the technical director of a program designed to create a system to manage the operations of the Navy around the world. She would go on to hold positions at the National Bureau of Standards; the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; the National Library of Medicine; and the Intelligence and Reconnaissance section of the Department of the Navy. Davis was the recipient of many awards and honors over the course of her career, including elected membership in the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Public Administration, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was selected as the Computer Science Man of the Year in 1979, prompting a change in the award name the following year.

Mildred Dresselhaus15. Mildred Dresselhaus (1930- 2017)

Known as the "queen of carbon science", Dresselhaus was the first female professor emerita of physics and electrical engineering at MIT.  She was particularly noted for her work on graphite, graphite compounds, carbon nanotubes, spin-orbit coupling in semiconductors, and low-dimensional thermoelectrics. Her research helped develop technology based on thin graphite which allow electronics to be "everywhere," including clothing and smartphones.

Dresselhaus won numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, the Enrico Fermi Award and the Vannevar Bush Award. In 1974 she was elected into the National Academy of Engineering.

“Follow your interest, get the best available education and training, set your sights high, be persistent, be flexible, keep your options open, accept help when offered, and be prepared to help others.”  -- Mildred Dresselhaus

shirley Jackson16. Shirley Jackson (b. 1946)

As a young girl, Jackson studied the bees in her backyard sparking a lifelong interest in science. She became the first African-American female PhD graduate of MIT (and the third to receive a bachelor degree). While working at Bell Labs, she developed inventions that lead to the creation of caller-ID and call-waiting. She went on to become the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a prestigious engineering school. Her impact on society has gone far past her improvement to phone communication, under her leadership RPI has steadily risen in the rankings and continues to produce high quality engineers. Jackson was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in 2001.

 “The advice I give to young people is fundamentally to not let others put limits on who you think you can be, to not put limits on them, and to understand and to believe that all of us have talents and have things to contribute.”  -- Shirley Jackson

Ellen Ochoa18. Ellen Ochoa (b. 1958)

Ellen Ochoa received a master of science degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1980.  When she was selected by NASA in 1990, Ochoa became the world's first Hispanic female astronaut and the first to go to space two years later. She served on a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery and would go on to fly in space four times, logging nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. Prior to her astronaut career, she was a research engineer and inventor, with three patents for optical systems.  Dr. Ochoa investigated optical systems for performing information processing. Simply put, her work involved helping computers to “see.” One of the patented inventions is an optical inspection system, another is an optical object recognition method, and a third is a tool for “noise removal” in images.

Ochoa is also the first Hispanic (and second female) to be named director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire - the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.”  -- Ellen Ochoa

Women have come a long way since most of these pioneers pursued their engineering dreams. But there is still a long way to go to fully open the doors that these trail blazing women pushed on. While college STEM majors are seeing increasing female participation, women only represent 15% of professional engineers today. More women engineers will help fill the increasing number of jobs in STEM fields. But beyond their numbers, women will bring a fresh perspective to the problems that engineering endeavors to solve. And that is something to celebrate.

Do you know other inspiring female engineers? Tell the community about them in the comments!

More Resources:

LinkEngineering's Women's History Playlist with short films about our featured engineers.

Diversity Improves Engineering Design

How Women Mentors Make a Difference in Engineering

The State of Girls and Women in STEM 2018

The Untold Story of Women in Science and Tech

Society for Women Engineers

Photo credit: Mildred Dusselhauf with a Scanning Electron Microscope, courtesy Mildred Dusselhauf via The Kavli Foundation.

In creating this list of outstanding women engineers, NAE consulted a number of sources including: EngineerGirl.org, Wikipedia, Biography.com, MIT, Stanford University, New York Times, The Kavli Foundation, The White House, The National Museum of American History, ASCE, SWE, Harvard University, Yale University, Wikimedia

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