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Historical Figures In Engineering: Edith Clarke

  • by: Jennifer Robinson
  • On: 10, Jan 2019
2 min read

Edith Clarke was one of the first female electrical engineers, whose work would provide instrumental in revolutionising  the US telephone system, saving lives through her engineering work in World War I, and becoming the first woman to get an engineering degree from MIT, and the first female electrical engineer in America.

Born in 1883, Edith had a difficult childhood, with both parents being dead by the time she was 12. She used her inheritance to study mathematics and astronomy at Vassar College when she was old enough to study.

Edith Clarke's Electrical Engineering Work

From there, she went on to teach mathematics and physics at a private school in San Francisco, but her real passion was engineering. In 1911, she enrolled as a civil engineering student at the University of Wisconsin. During this time, she took a job as a ‘human computer’ at AT&T, solving complex mathematical equations. She was part of the team to work on the first transcontinental phone line.

She enjoyed the work so much she quit school and went to work full-time, eventually becoming the manager of a group of women engineers who would make calculations for the Transmission and Protection Engineering Department during World War I.

While working at AT&T she studied electrical engineering part-time at Columbia University. In 1918 she left to study electrical engineering at MIT, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. In 1919 she was the first woman to graduate from the university with a degree in electrical engineering.

From there she went on to become the first female electrical engineer in the country, working for General Electric. She spent the next 25 years working at General Electric, and in 1921 she invented ‘The Clarke Calculator’, a graphical device that simplified the equations electrical engineers needed to understand power lines. The hyperbolic functions involved were incredibly complex, and took many manhours to work through before the invention of this calculator.

In 2015, Edith Clarke was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame thanks to her creation of The Clarke Calculator.

Between 1923 and 1951 Edith published 18 technical papers, two of which received rewards from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. She would also be the first woman to present one of her papers at a meeting of the AIEE, entitled ‘Steady-State Stability In Transmission Systems.’

This paper was of critical national importance. At the time, transmission lines were getting longer, and with longer lines came greater loads and more chances for system instability. Unfortunately, the mathematical models available at the time applied only to small systems. Edith applied a mathematical technique called the method of symmetrical components to model a power system and its behaviour. This permitted her and other engineers to determine characteristics essential to analysing large systems.

She later became the first female voting member of the AIEE in 1948.

In 1947 she became the first female electrical engineering professor in America, at the university of Texas.

Her contributions to field of electrical engineering cannot be overstated, allowing for incredibly complex equations to be solved decades before commercial computers as we know them today.

Learn about other women in engineering, like Ada Lovelace, or Hedy Lemarr.  

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