Kate Gramling Principal consultant Illumineer

Remarkable Engineers Who Happened to be Women

PostedThursday, March 7, 2019 at 11:31 AM

Remarkable Engineers Who Happened to be Women

Every year, when Women’s History Month arrives, I find many stories about women who’ve made historical contributions to civilization. In recent years, with the added emphasis on STEM, there have been many more stories about female engineers through history. These stories are often inspirational and can be jumping-off points for discussions about how engineering affects society.

So many talented women have made their mark on the world through engineering, but here are three of my favorites:

Lillian GilbrethThe “First Lady of Engineering”

Lillian Moller Gilbreth and her husband, Frank, were pioneers in the area of time and motion studies in the early 1920s. They applied this knowledge to improve efficiency and reduce injuries at work and in the home. After Frank died suddenly from a heart attack, Lillian Gilbreth continued to work in the field (and raise 12 children) on her own.

She went on to write 4 books and is widely recognized as the first person to integrate psychology into management concepts. Her work helped establish the field of industrial engineering and she taught courses in this field at various universities, including Purdue and Rutgers.

Less touted, but equally important, Gilbreth recognized that minor adaptations to tools and working areas would allow many more people to be engaged in productive work. She used her knowledge and creativity to advocate and invent technologies that allowed disabled persons to work and live full, independent lives. In 1966, she was awarded the prestigious Hoover Medal for this.

Environmental Trailblazer

Ellen Swallow Richards is perhaps best known as the founder of home economics. But her career also helped lay the foundations for environmental engineering and contributed to technical advances in many disciplines ranging from plumbing to nutrition to industrial health and safety.

Richards was the first woman be accepted to and receive a degree from an American technical university. She received a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1873 and throughout her career she ran laboratories and taught chemistry there.

E.S. Richards at her desk in the MIT lab

Ellen Swallow Richards at her desk in the lab at MIT

Water Laboratory

The Water Laboratory at MIT. The Richards Chlorine Map appears in the upper half of the image.

In 1887, she and her assistants conducted what was, at the time, the most comprehensive water-quality study ever attempted in the country. They collected and analyzed tens of thousands of water samples from sources all over Massachusetts. Richards determined that there is a "normal" chlorine level in water, which naturally varies across a landscape. Using that idea and the data she collected, she created a map that could identify and predict areas of pollution. The end result was the country’s first water-quality standards and wastewater treatment facility.

An “Engineer of Service”

Customer research and universal design are such commonplace ideas today, it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. But that’s pretty much the way it was when Olive Dennis started working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) in 1920.

Educated as a civil engineer, Dennis traveled between a quarter and a half a million miles by train, talking to passengers and watching them interact with employees and equipment. Her problem-solving and design skills played a major role in the introduction of air conditioning, dimmable lights, reclining seats, and stain-resistant upholstery.

She looked for innovative solutions to problems that travelers didn’t even recognize themselves. There’s a story of her chatting with some businessmen who said they should be working, but just felt like napping after lunch. After further investigation, she recommended changing the train’s lunch menu to also include soups, salads, and other lighter fare.

It’s difficult to know the full extent of Dennis’s contributions because she worked with many different teams and signed over her inventions and patents to the railroad. There is little doubt, however, that her success at B&O inspired other railroads, and then car manufacturers, and eventually all manner of other businesses to expand their ideas about design to include greater diversity.

Olive Dennis and college discuss changes to buffet car

Olive Dennis in 1947, explaining improvements to a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad buffet car.

The Big Picture

Each of these women was remarkably successful during her lifetime. But I think it’s important to remember – especially during this month – that their achievements were not just women’s achievements. They were engineering achievements.

These three reshaped industries. They affected public policy in ways that had lasting, long-term effects. They created entirely new fields of study and work.

Yes, they were women and, yes, they were very talented. But they were also diligent students, hard-working team players, and creative thinkers who looked for ways to improve the world they saw around them.

They were engineers.

More information about Women’s History as well as a round-up of resources can be found on the Women's History Month website maintained by the U.S. Library of Congress.

The NAE's EngineerGirl website maintains a expanding collection of profiles of notable female engineers through history.

Listen to professional women talk about the women in STEM fields who inspired them in The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology.

A previous LinkEngineer Blog post featured 18 Women Engineers Who Made History.

Photo Credits:

Photo of Lillian Gilbreth from the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2008-1924]).
Richards Portrait & laboratory images found in a memorial calendar for Ellen Swallow Richards. Online at the MIT Library Archives.
Dennis portrait retrieved from Wikipedia, "Olive Dennis as a student at Gaucher College, class of 1908".

Dennis image from B&O Railroad Museum; found in online article about the 'Lady Engineer'