Edith Clarke was born 135 years ago today, on February 10 in 1883 in a small Maryland farming community. One of nine children, both her parents died by the time she was just 12 years old. Six years later, Edith made the life-changing decision to use the little inheritance money she received to study mathematics and astronomy at Vassar College. From there, this woman you should know went on to make a number of pioneering achievements in the field of electrical engineering, becoming known for “developing mathematical methods that simplified and reduced the work of electrical engineers,”¹ while doing much for women along the way.
10 Things You Should Know About Edith Clarke
1. Edith graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 1908, then taught math and physics at a private girls’ school in San Francisco, as well as at Marshall College in West Virginia.
2. Teaching was fine, but Edith REALLY wanted to be an engineer. So in 1911 she enrolled in the civil engineering program at the University of Wisconsin.
3. After her first year at Wisconsin, Edith took a summer job at AT&T as a “computer” (as in a human calculator who solves mathematical equations), assisting “engineers working to build the first transcontinental phone line.”² She loved the work so much, she quit school and stayed on full-time at AT&T, eventually becoming the manager of a group of women “computers” who made calculations for the Transmission and Protection Engineering Department during World War I.
4. In her spare time, while doing her very important work at AT&T, Edith studied radio at Hunter College and electrical engineering at Columbia University.
5. Edith left AT&T in 1918 to study electrical engineering at MIT in Boston, where she earned her master’s degree (1919), becoming the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from the prestigious institution.
6. Post MIT, Edith accepted a job as a “computer” for General Electric (GE), and in 1921 went on temporary leave to take a position as a professor of physics at the Constantinople Women’s College in Turkey. She returned to GE in 1922 as a salaried electrical engineer, making her the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the United States.
7. Edith made her most famous contribution in 1921 – the Clarke Calculator – a graphical device she invented “that simplified the equations electrical engineers used to understand power lines.”² It earned a patent in 1925.
8. Edith authored or co-authored 18 technical papers between 1923 and 1951, including two award-winners. In 1926, she was the first woman to present a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. She later went on to become the first woman to be accepted as a full voting member of the AIEE, as well as the first woman to be elected a fellow of the AIEE (1948). The AIEE became the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, IEEE, in 1963.
9. After 26 years, Edith left GE in 1947 to teach electrical engineering as a full professor at the University of Texas, Austin, becoming the first female professor of electrical engineering in the United Sates. She worked there until her retirement in 1956.
10. In 1954, Edith Clarke received a lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers. She died on October 29, 1959 at the age of 76. In 2015, she was posthumously inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, joining the ranks with Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla for her Clarke Calculator.
BONUS: Edith helped build the Hoover Dam, “contributing her electrical expertise to develop and install the turbines that generate hydropower there to this day.”²