Historical Female Engineers to Remember for Their Contributions to the Foundations of Electrical Engineering

2 months ago by Emily Gray-Fow

Historically, engineering, and especially electrical engineering has been heavily skewed towards men. That said, history boasts a number of female electrical engineers. Today, women are more visible in engineering than ever before, though there is still a lot of variation in the proportion of women engineers from country to country.

In the past, sexist attitudes have meant female engineers haven’t always received the acknowledgment and acclaim they deserved. You may not have heard of all of these ladies, but all of them were responsible for great leaps forward in electrical engineering and in women’s rights. 

The women featured in this article ultimately made a huge difference to the world around them, whether it be improving women’s rights or even contributing to their country's success in WWII efforts. 

 

Hedy Lamarr 

Best known as a screen actress, Hedy Lamarr was a victim of her era. Sexism and xenophobia led to her best-known invention being taken away from her by the US government. However, what wasn't taken away was the fact that her ‘unladylike’ hobby of inventing things led to her working to support the war effort with her inventions. 

Lamarr patented her ideas for frequency-hopping wireless communications in the 1040s, only to have the patent confiscated by the US military as she wasn’t a US citizen when she filed the patent for her invention.

Unable to make money from her invention, and with MGM Studios uninterested in pushing her intellectual talents—as they didn’t fit their image for the star—she wasn’t well known for her work on RF signals until after her death in 2000.

Despite all this, her “secret communications system” became the foundation of numerous RF technologies, including cellular phones and Wi-Fi. 

 

Image obtained from Wikipedia.

 

Edith Clarke 

Edith Clarke started out as a student of mathematics and astronomy. Following her graduation in 1908, she went on to become one of the early human “computers” at AT&T in 1912. While with AT&T, she studied electrical engineering at night and enrolled at MIT for a master’s in electrical engineering in 1918. 

She was the first woman to achieve a degree from MIT in electrical engineering, but was unable to find work as an engineer. She took on another “computer” role in 1919, this time with General Electric (GE), and in 1921, filed a patent for a graphical calculator designed to help with calculating power transmission line problems.

In 1926 Edith became the first woman to present a paper in front of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and throughout her long career, she published a number of papers and textbooks. Edith Clarke also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers in 1954.

 

Image obtained from Wikipedia.

 

 

Caroline Haslett

Dame Caroline Harriet Haslett, DBE, JP was the first secretary of the Women’s Engineering Society, founded the journal ‘The Woman Engineer’, and was the co-founder of The Electrical Association for Women. 

She was also heavily involved in the predecessor for RoSPA, the British Institute of Management, and in the electricity industry in general. One of the achievements most people will be familiar with is that she was instrumental in the design of British plugs and sockets in the post-war era, and heavily figured in the design spec for BS 1363 plugs and sockets. 

 

Image courtesy of the Women's Engineering Society.

 

Florence Violet McKenzie

Florence Violet McKenzie OBE was Australia’s first female electrical engineer. Best known for her work with radio, her campaign to have some of her trainees admitted into the Royal Australian Navy as instrumental in the formation of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service.

She was the founder and director of the Electrical Association for Women, and trained over 10,000 servicemen in morse code as part of the war effort. She also corresponded regularly with Albert Einstein over the last 15 years of his life. 

 

Image courtesy of Women's Emergency Signallers Corps.

 

 

Hertha Marks Ayerton

Hertha Marks Ayerton was a British mathematician, engineer, physicist, and inventor of Jewish extraction. Her most notable achievement was receiving the Hughes Medal in 1906, for her work on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. A committed suffragette, she managed to continue her education despite having left home and taken up a position as a governess at the age of 16.

 

Image courtesy of Women You Should Know. 

 

Bertha Lamme Feicht

Bertha Lamme Feicht was an electromechanical engineer whose professional life was largely based at Westinghouse. It was rare for any recently qualified engineer to walk straight into a job at Westinghouse, let alone a woman, which speaks volumes of her abilities as an engineer.

Like many women at the time, she quit work to raise a family after 12 years with the company, though her daughter went on to become a physicist. She is considered to be the first American woman to graduate in a non-civil engineering field. 

 

Image courtesy of Ohio State University.

 

Margaret Mary Partridge

Margaret Mary Partridge was a founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). She started her own electrical engineering consultancy and was instrumental in bringing electricity to a number of villages and small towns in her native town of Devon, England. 

Partridge very supportive of women’s rights and went out of her way to offer women apprenticeships in engineering. A certain apprentice she took on was Beatrice Shilling—who went on to develop engineering solutions that helped England win the Battle of Britain in WWII.

 

Image courtesy of IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology).

 

Beatrice (Tilly) Shilling OBE PhD MSC cEng

Beatrice (Tilly) Shilling started out as an electrical engineer. After being accepted for an apprenticeship by Margaret Partridge upon on leaving school, she went on to become an aeronautical engineer, and her invention the “tilly orifice” solved a stalling problem in aircraft engines which could have lost England the Battle of Britain. 

A keen amateur racing driver, she raced motorcycles at Brooklands and post-war raced cars at Goodwood.

 

Image courtesy of the University of Manchester.

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