Daniel Gordon, Contributor

“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 Clarke, 1948

Whether you planned to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from a young age or Mini-Circuits was an unexpected destination on your path, chances are you’ve heard of electrical engineering trailblazer Edith Clarke. If you haven’t, it’s high time to get to know her and her contributions to the industry we call home.

Edith Clarke is most widely known for being the first female electrical engineer, though she conquered many other firsts—the first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the first woman to become a voting member and, later, fellow, of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), and the first female engineering professor in America.

Breaking Barriers

Portrait of Edith Clark

For Clarke, overcoming adversity had long been a way of life. Born one of nine children in Howard County, Maryland, on February 10, 1883, she became an orphan at just 12 years old. Despite this hardship, she went on to earn a degree in mathematics and astronomy from Vassar College in New York, using inheritance money for tuition. Shortly after graduating in 1908, she became seriously ill—reportedly, near death—and subsequently decided to pursue her passion for engineering.

Pursue it she did, studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then electrical engineering at Columbia University. While at Columbia, she worked as a human computer (or “computor,” a person who solved mathematical equations) for AT&T. In 1919, Clarke made history earning her M.S. in electrical engineering from MIT.

After graduating from MIT, she became a computor for General Electric (GE) and, in 1921, filed a patent on the “Clarke Calculator”—a graphical calculator that simplified the process of solving electric power transmission line problems. In 1922, on the heels of a brief stint teaching physics at the Constantinople Women’s College in Turkey, she returned to GE, this time as a salaried electrical engineer.

Clarke spent the next 23 years at GE. During this time, she became a member of the AIEE—one of just three women to hold the title—and published her two-volume textbook, Circuit Analysis of AC Power Systems, Symmetrical and Related Components, which would become the major reference textbook in the field of electrical engineering. After retiring from GE, she became the first female engineering professor at the University of Texas in Austin, retiring from the role shortly before her death in 1959.

Laying the Foundation

As many Mini-Circuits members can attest, pursuing a degree and career in the field of electrical engineering is no small feat; as one might imagine, navigating this world as a woman in the early 1900s wasn’t either. As researcher and historian Sandy Levins describes in her blog, Wednesday’s Women, Clarke “settled for math and astronomy” at Vassar only because engineering wasn’t available as a field of study for women. Clarke also had difficulty breaking into the engineering field; even with a master’s from MIT, she was unable to find a job as an engineer, which was largely how she ended up in computing. As a computor at GE, Levins writes, “Clarke neither earned the same salary nor was afforded the same professional status as her male colleagues.”

A lot has changed since the 1900s, though there is still progress to be made. According to data from the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation, although women represent approximately half of the U.S. workforce, they accounted for just 29% of science and engineering employment in 2017. The good news is the number of women earning STEM degrees has been on a steady rise. According to Statista, the number of female students who obtained a STEM degree or certificate increased by 48% from 2009 to 2016, versus a 38% increase in male students. Despite these numbers, the gender gap remains wide.

Honoring Women in STEM

Without the pioneering work of Edith Clarke and the many inspiring women engineers throughout history, we wouldn’t be where we are today—as a company, as an industry or as a civilization. This piece is part of a series highlighting the accomplishments of the women who revolutionized the field of electrical engineering and paved the way for future generations of women in STEM.

Sources

[1]Pioneering Women in Computing Technology,” The Ada Project, https://www.women.cs.cmu.edu/ada/Resources/Women/.

[2] “Edith Clarke, Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame,” Maryland State Archives, https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/clarke.html.

[3] “Edith Clarke,” EngineerGirl, https://www.engineergirl.org/125222/Edith-Clarke.

[4] “Edith Clarke,” Biographies of Women Mathematicians (Agnes Scott College), https://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/clarke.htm.

[5] “Clarke, Edith (1883–1959),” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia.com), https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/clarke-edith-1883-1959.

[6] “Edith Clarke,” League of Coders, http://wit.library.cornell.edu/show.html?id=13.

[7] “Edith Clarke – Engineering Hall of Fame,” Edison Tech Center, https://edisontechcenter.org/Clarke.html.

[8] Sandy Levins, “The Electrifying Story of Engineer Edith Clarke,” Wednesday’s Women, July 1, 2020, https://wednesdayswomen.com/the-electrifying-story-of-engineer-edith-clarke/.

[9] Beethika Khan, Carol Robbins, and Abigail Okrent, “The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020,” National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (National Science Board, National Science Foundation, 2020), https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20201/u-s-s-e-workforce.  

[10] Sarah Feldman, “Chart: Steady Rise for Women in STEM but Gender Gap Remains,” Statista, February 11, 2019, https://www.statista.com/chart/16970/women-stem/.