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National Women's History Month: Edith Clarke

Published on 3/21/2019


February 10, 1883 - October 29, 1959

Edith wasn’t one to be held back by her early struggles. At the age of 18 she used the money received from her parent’s estate to pay for tuition at Vassar College in New York. Here she studied mathematics and astronomy and graduated with the highest honors.

After graduating from Vassar, Edith went on to teach math and physics at a private girl’s school in San Francisco and at Marshall College in West Virginia. However, Edith was intent on being an engineer. To pursue this goal, she enrolled in a civil engineering program at the University of Wisconsin.

During this time Edith also accepted a job at AT&T as a Human Computer. Much like the computers of today, her job was to solve complex mathematical equations. Edith’s mathematical work at AT&T helped her fellow engineers to build the first transcontinental phone line from New York to California. She enjoyed her work at AT&T so much that she dropped out of her civil engineering program and managed a group of women Computers during World War I.
Edith’s exposure to theories about transmission lines and electrical circuits at AT&T likely sparked her desire to become an electrical engineer. With her inspiration set, Edith left AT&T in 1918 and studied electrical engineering at MIT. This is where Edith Clarke’s epic resume of firsts begins to unfold:

1919 – First Woman to Earn an EE Degree from MIT
Edith Clarke graduated from MIT in 1919 with a Master’s Degree in electrical engineering. She was the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from this prestigious university.

1922 – First Woman to Become an EE in the United States
After graduating from MIT, Edith took a job as a Computer for General Electric. She still found it exceptionally hard to land a job as an electrical engineer, and recounts this in her quote from the Daily Texan:

“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 took a temporary leave from GE in 1921 to become a Professor of Physics at the Constantinople Women’s College in Turkey. Perhaps she was frustrated at being roadblocked in her desire to become a fully-fledged electrical engineer? It’s a mystery. 

In 1922 Edith returned to GE where she was recognized as a salaried electrical engineer, at last! This made her the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the United States. Edith spent the next 25 years at GE writing a number of technical papers on power transmission and the mathematical examination of power lines. 
Edith also made one of her most famous contributions to field of electrical engineering at this time, the Clarke Calculator. This calculator helped to simplify methods for solving power transmission line problems over distances up to 250 miles. As biographer James Brittain explains, “She translated what many engineers found to be esoteric mathematical methods into graphs or simpler forms during a time when power systems were becoming more complex and when the initial efforts were being made to develop electromechanical aids [like computers] to [help with] problem solving.”

1926 – First Woman to Present a Paper to the AIEE
Between the years of 1923 and 1951 Edith published 18 technical papers, two of which received awards by the AIEE. In February 1926, Clarke was the first woman to present one of her papers at an AIEE meeting, titled “Steady-State Stability in Transmission Systems.”

1948 – First Woman to Become a Voting Member of AIEE
Not to stop at being the first woman to present a paper at AIEE, Edith also became the first woman to become a voting member of the organization in 1948. The AIEE later became the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) that we all know today.

1947 – First Woman to Become an Electrical Engineering Professor
25 years later, Edith retired from her post at General Electric and went on to teach electrical engineering as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Again, she made history as the first female electrical engineering professional and taught until her retirement in 1956.

Edith Clarke had the courage to pave a path that was not set before her. She completely disrupted societal expectations in a day and age where women were expected to uphold traditional roles at home. It takes true determination to push beyond the established status quo on a path of your own. Edith Clarke, thank you for changing our world and expanding opportunities for female electrical everywhere!

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