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Edith Clark

1883 - 1959, USA

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Achievement

She translated what many engineers found to be esoteric mathematical methods into graphs or simpler forms during a time when power systems were becoming more complex and when the initial efforts were being made to develop electromechanical aids to problem solving.

 

Biography

Edith Clarke, born in a small farming community in Maryland, went to Vassar College at age eighteen to study mathematics and astronomy and graduated in 1908 with honors and as a Phi Beta Kappa. Subsequently, she taught mathematics at a private girls' school in San Francisco, and then at Marshall College in Huntington, W. Va. In the fall of 1911, Edith enrolled as a civil engineering student at the University of Wisconsin. At the end of her first year, she took a summer job as a "Computor Assistant" (skilled mathematician) to AT&T research engineer Dr. George Campbell and was so interested in the computing work that she did not return to her studies, but instead stayed on at AT&T to train and direct a group of computors.

In 1918, Edith left to enroll in the EE program at MIT, earning her MSc. degree (the first degree ever awarded by that department to a woman) in June 1919. In 1919, she took a job as a computor for GE in Schenectady, NY, and in 1921 filed a patent for a "graphical calculator" to be employed in solving electric power transmission line problems. Also in 1921, she took a leave from GE to take a position as a professor of physics at the U.S.-founded Constantinople Women's College in Turkey. Returning to GE in 1922 as a salaried electrical engineer, Edith continued there till her first retirement in 1945. In 1947, after a brief first retirement on a farm in Maryland, she accepted an EE professorship at the University of Texas, Austin, and became the first woman to teach engineering there. She worked there as a full professor until her second retirement in 1956.

In a March 14, 1948 interview by the Daily Texan, she commented on the future prospects for women in engineering: "There is no demand for women engineers, as such, as there are for women doctors; but there's always a demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work." A New York Times article of Feb. 19, 1956, said, "She believes that women may help solve today's critical need for technical manpower."

Dr. James E. Brittain's paper, "From Computor to Electrical Engineer--the Remarkable Career of Edith Clarke," sheds light on how she was a pioneer for women in both engineering and computing:

"Edith Clarke's engineering career had as its central theme the development and dissemination of mathematical methods that tended to simplify and reduce the time spent in laborious calculations in solving problems in the design and operation of electrical power systems. She translated what many engineers found to be esoteric mathematical methods into graphs or simpler forms during a time when power systems were becoming more complex and when the initial efforts were being made to develop electromechanical aids to problem solving. As a woman who worked in an environment traditionally dominated by men, she demonstrated effectively that women could perform at least as well as men if given the opportunity. Her outstanding achievements provided an inspiring example for the next generation of women with aspirations to become career engineers."

 

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Footnotes & References

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1 Brittain, Dr. James E. From Computor to Electrical Engineer -- the Remarkable Career of Edith Clarke. IEEE Transactions on Education, Vol. E28, No. 4, Nov. 1985.
2 Gusen, Aaron. Looking Back: Edith Clarke. IEEE Potentials, Feb. 1994. (This paper is the source for the information provided above.)
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