Women have played a tremendous role in the history of engineering, having worked hard against society’s expectations of them, to introduce some of the best innovations in history. From the Brooklyn Bridge to windscreen wipers, there have been many pioneering females in the field of engineering and here we outline some of the most famous and influential figures.
The Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel and we have many engineers to thank for its creation. One person that is often forgotten about is Edith Clarke, who helped build this huge structure, applying her expertise in power systems that she’d used for her designs of many dams across the American West. As you can imagine, electrical engineering deals with many fields and it doesn’t take much imagination to think about all the things we use electricity for. Edith Clark was a pioneer in one of the most important areas of engineering, and the first women to earn an electrical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This was in an era where women pursuing higher education was practically unheard of.
Clarke was born in 1883 into a prosperous family and she was one of nine children. After struggling to find work, she was eventually employed by General Electric (GE) in 1922 and achieved great success with the company. By the time of her death in 1959, she had an extensive portfolio of engineering creations and projects. Along with helping build the Hoover Dam, her lasting legacy includes her invention of a graphical calculator, a device that solves issues with power transmissions, which is still in use today. In 2015, Clark was honoured and inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.
At a time when women couldn’t own property in their own name, Sarah Guppy lay claim to a great range of inventions. She was born in Birmingham, in 1770, but lived her adult life in Bristol. Her greatest contribution to the field of engineering, was her early design for the piling of foundation bridges in 1811. Blessed with an admirable level of modesty, she gave the plans to Isambard Kingdom Brunel for free, which he used to build the iconic Clifton Suspension bridge. Her design was also used by Thomas Telford when he was building the Menai Suspension bridge in Wales. Guppy’s main concern was public benefit over personal profit.
While Guppy’s patents had to be registered under the name of ‘the guppy family’, she never actively claimed credit for her work. She wasn’t only an early advocate of suspension bridges, as she also designed a scheme to prevent oil erosion on railway embankments by planning popular trees and willow. Guppy also put forward inventions to solve everyday problems, such as a modified candle holder which burns the candle more efficiently. All in all, Guppy secured ten patents in her lifetime – a tremendous achievement.
The American Civil War will always be remembered as the bloodiest in US history, in which women played important roles. From a list of nurses, soldiers and medics, one pioneering woman stands out above all others: Martha Coston. Coston was responsible for the US Navy’s communication technology during the Civil War. She invented the Coston night signals, which were used extensively by the US Navy to coordinate various operations at sea.
Coston overcame personal tragedy to engrave her name into the engineering history books. She was born in 1826 in Baltimore, Maryland but moved to Philadelphia in the 1930s with her family. It was there she met her husband Benjamin Coston, who was developing a reputation as a skilled inventor. The two soon eloped when Benjamin Coston was offered a position in the navy. At the age of 21, Martha Coston found herself widowed with four children, so she desperately needed to find a way to support them. She discovered unfinished plans for a pyrotechnic flare in her late husband’s notebook, and set about designing one that would work, a task that took up 10 years of her life. In 1959, she finally achieved a patent, with the US navy paying $20,000 for the rights to the patent. Coston is a pioneer of female engineering and today, her signal flares are still used by the US navy.
The Brooklyn Bridge is one of New York’s most recognisable landmarks, framing the classic view of Manhattan’s famous skyline. Built in 1883 at a time when New York’s engineering landscape was dominated by men, Emily Roebling was master of the project. Her husband, Washington Roebling was originally the chief engineer, but he fell ill and bed ridden, so she oversaw the project in his place. Roebling was responsible for the day to day construction of one of the largest engineering projects in America’s history.
She was born in 1843 and wanted to pursue a career in education. For someone who initially had no interest in engineering, we can only imagine the amount of dedication it must have taken Roebling to get the Brooklyn Bridge completed. She studied widely, learning everything should could about the strengths of materials and cable construction. She even answered questions from officials and contractors, kept records and answered Washington’s mail. Roebling never planned on becoming an engineer, but she helped accomplish one of the greatest engineering feats.
We all take it for granted when it starts to rain and you’re behind the wheel, and with a flick of a button you can see the road ahead. We have Mary Anderson to thank for her handy invention – the windscreen wiper. Imagine what life behind the wheel would be like if Anderson had never got a patent for her creation, as many people at the time dismissed her invention, believing it would distract drivers and cause accidents.
Born in 1886 in Green County, Alabama, Anderson was involved in real estate development and cattle farming, but she had an eye for engineering. Her idea for the windscreen wiper came about when she visited New York in 1902, and she noticed the huge inconvenience of driving in adverse weather conditions, as people had to manually remove snow and sleet off the windshield. So, she designed a rubber bladed device that would sweep across the windscreen, removing rain, snow and dust. Her idea was initially rejected, but by the 1940s and 50s, the windscreen wiper was a standard feature on new cars. As such, she’s a crucial figure in the development of the motor vehicle.
Beatrice A. Hicks
When we think of the lunar landings we usually think of men, yet few people know the key role one pioneering female engineer played in the missions. Beatrice A. Hicks developed a gas density switch that would go on to be used in the Apollo moon landing. She achieved this feat working for Western Electric, a position she secured three years after achieving a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Newark College of Engineering in 1939. She was the first female engineer to be hired by the company, proving all her doubters wrong as during her childhood, many of her teachers and classmates tried to discourage her from becoming an engineer, seeing it as an inappropriate career for women. By the time Hicks died in 1979, she had achieved great success. She had also helped develop technologies for aero communications, as well as for telephones. In 2002, she was included in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Hertha Marks Ayrton
A pioneer with many talents, Hertha Marks Ayrton was not only an accomplished engineer, but she also succeeded as a mathematician and physicist. Born in Hampshire, England, she was the first female engineer of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. She registered 26 patents for mathematic dividers, electrodes and arc lamps between 1884 and her death in 1923. She was awarded the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society for work on the electric arc. Space physics professor, Michelle Dougherty is the only other woman in history who has received the same award.
Through Ayrton’s experiments, she discovered a solution to the arc lamp’s tendency to hiss, which involved excluding oxygen from the arc. However, her most significant work was her experimentations on ripple movement. In a research paper, she explained how ripples form and produce one another. She applied her theories about ripple movement in water and air during the outbreak of WWI. As a result, her ideas quickly led to the invention of the Ayrton Flipper Fan, which was used to repel gas attacks. Having discovered the secret of ripples, her lasting legacy is her contribution to the canon of physical science.
Evidently, women have been responsible for some great engineering creations, from bridges that thousands of people use a day to key pieces of military equipment. It would be easy to take these creations for granted, without any knowledge of their incredible back stories. These women contributed to closing the gap in gender disparity in engineering, inspiring more females to pursue their chosen field. In more recent times, more and more female engineers have built upon this tradition of female innovation and risen through the ranks to influential positions, such as Google’s Diane Greene and Microsoft’s Peggy Johnson. But it is the women of this article that truly paved the way, and did so without receiving the praise they deserved at the time. Hopefully the next generation of female engineers take inspiration from these women and go on to flourish in a far more equal, progressive society.
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