Edith Clarke was born on a farm in rural Maryland in 1883. After earning her undergraduate degrees in math and astronomy from Vassar (Phi Beta Kappa), she went on to teach math and physics at a girls’ school for a few years.
She also worked as a computor – literally a human who performed mathematical calculations before our modern-day computers and calculators were invented. During WWI, she managed a group of women computors who performed calculations for the Transmission and Protection Engineering Department.
In 1918 she became the first woman to graduate from MIT with a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering, and went on the next year to work for General Electric (GE) until 1945. During this time she patented a ‘graphical calculator’ and several other devices. She became the first woman to present a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, now the IEEE), as well as first to become a voting member and fellow of that group.
Working primarily as a computor at GE because they would not employ a woman engineer, she also pursued other interests. She wrote or co-authored 19 technical papers over several decades, and won a tennis championship.
She took a leave of absence from GE to travel around Europe and teach at a women’s university in Turkey for a year. Upon her return, she was finally assigned to work as an engineer for GE at their Central Station Engineering Department, which made her the first U.S. woman to be professionally employed as an electrical engineer.
Two years after retiring from GE, she took a teaching position at the University of Texas, Austin, and was their first female professor of engineering. She was one of those rare, talented people who could break down complicated mathematics into simpler forms and teach it as well as work with it.
In 1954 she earned the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Achievement Award, and retired in 1956. She died a few years later, at the age of 76. Her other awards include a spot in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
Edith Clarke paved the way for many female engineers to follow in her footsteps, and showed great tenacity in her pursuit of full-time engineering work instead of the ‘usual’ jobs allowed women of her time.