Edith Clarke was the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was also the first female professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Born into a prosperous family in Maryland in the late 19th century, she was not expected to become a career woman but a wife, mother, and gracious hostess. The determined young woman did not let societal expectations hinder her professional aspirations and went on to become one of the best known engineers of her era. After studying mathematics and astronomy at Vassar College she embarked on a career as a teacher. While working in this position she realized her true interest in engineering, a field women in the early 20th century seldom ventured into. She spent some time studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and but left it and proceeded to earn an electrical engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), becoming the first woman to do so. Being a woman she was unable to find work as an engineer but she persevered and eventually became an electrical engineer in the Central Station Engineering Department of General Electric and achieved considerable success with the company. After leaving GE she joined the faculty of the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin.
Childhood & Early Life
Edith Clarke was born on February 10, 1883, in Maryland as one of nine children in a prosperous family. She received an upbringing typical for girls of her stature where the emphasis was on grooming the young women for marriage and motherhood.
She went to Briarley Hall, a boarding school for girls in Montgomery County where she learned Latin, English literature, and history. She also received rigorous training in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry which laid the foundation of her future career.
Orphaned at a young age, she used her inheritance to fund her education at Vassar College where she studied mathematics and astronomy and graduated in 1908 with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
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Edith Clarke embarked on a teaching career and she taught mathematics at a private girls' school in San Francisco for some time before moving on to Marshall College in Huntington. As a teacher she realized that her true passion was engineering and decided to get a formal education in the field.
In 1911, she studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for a while. At the end of her first year, she took a job as a "Computer Assistant" to AT&T research engineer Dr. George Campbell who applied mathematical methods to the problems of long-distance electrical transmissions.
Along with her job, she attended night classes in electrical engineering at Columbia University. She enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1918, and the following year she became the first woman to earn an M.S. in electrical engineering from the institute.
She began looking for a job as an engineer but was unable to find one as employers were reluctant to employ a female engineer. So she accepted a position as a supervisor of computers in the Turbine Engineering Department in GE. There she trained and supervised women who calculated the mechanical stresses in turbines.
In her spare time she worked on her inventions and created the Clarke calculator, a simple graphical device that solved equations involving electric current, voltage and impedance in power transmission lines.
She took some time off from GE and accepted a position at Constantinople Women's College in Turkey in 1921 where she taught physics to young women. Then she travelled around Europe, spending time in Austria, Germany, Holland, and England.
Upon her return in 1922, she was re-hired by GE as an electrical engineer in the Central Station Engineering Department. Happy to finally get the job she deserved, she worked diligently with the company for several years before leaving in 1945.
She published her first paper titled ‘Transmission Line Calculator’ in 1923 and became the first woman to deliver a paper at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) in 1926.
In 1925, she received a patent for the Clarke calculator and proceeded to receive least two more patents, one for electric power transmission in 1927 and the other for an electric circuit in 1944.
Her two-volume text, ‘Circuit Analysis of A-C Power Systems’, published in 1943 was very well received by the engineering fraternity and quickly became the main textbook for new engineers.
She joined the faculty of the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin in 1947, becoming the first female professor of Electrical Engineering in the country. She taught for ten years and retired in 1957.
She invented the Clarke calculator for which she got a patent in 1925. The simple graphical device could solve equations involving electric current, voltage and impedance in power transmission lines. It was a very speedy device that could solve line equations involving hyperbolic functions ten times faster than previous methods.
Awards & Achievements
Edith Clarke became the first female Fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1948.
In 1954, she received the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award.
She was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.
Personal Life & Legacy
Edith Clarke died on October 29, 1959, at the age of 76.