Edith Clarke: Keeps Current, Takes Charge
No matter the obstacle, Edith Clarke knew how to take charge of her own destiny: “I had always wanted to be an engineer, but felt that women were not supposed to be doing things like studying engineering.”
By no means, however, was Clarke’s rise simple and easy. Orphaned at age 12, she came of age in a Maryland boarding school. At 18, she received a small inheritance which took her through Vassar College, then Yale’s all-women sister institution; she graduated in 1908. After teaching gigs in San Francisco and Wisconsin, Clarke returned to the field full-time as manager of an all-female team of “human computers” at AT&T. She had reached the ceiling for women in electrical engineering.
Determined to continue her career doing what “women were not supposed to be doing,” the pioneering powerhouse next enrolled at MIT and became that institution’s first woman to earn an M.S. in electrical engineering. But even with such a degree, no company would hire female engineers. In response, Clarke left the United States to teach physics at Istanbul’s Women’s College. Again, she couldn’t stay out of the field, returning to the United States as a “human computer” for General Electric.
At GE, Edith Clarke created and patented The Clarke Calculator, a graphical device that solved equations used to send power through electrical transmission lines longer than 250 meters. Her massive contribution to transcontinental telephone communication silenced skeptics; in 1922, at 38, Edith Clarke became the first professional female electrical engineer.
Next Up: The Women of ENIAC (click here or below)