10 Women Who Broke New Ground in Engineering

Caroline Haslett was a pioneering 20th-century British engineer who was intrigued with electricity and how it might better liberate female homemakers.
Charles Hewitt/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many girls and young women in developed countries today have their pick of advanced mathematics and science courses, as well as encouragement to pursue careers in engineering and technical fields. It wasn't always so. Most women who paved the way for others to enter these professions decades ago had neither the opportunities nor the support on their sides. Nevertheless, they managed to shake up the world of science in all sorts of groundbreaking ways.

Some women came by their dam, bridge and manufacturing genius by taking up an interest in all things technical, mechanical or electrical, and they signed up to work alongside men in schools of engineering and in building and technical professions where no women had calculated or computed before. Family and economic hardship often further stacked the decks against them.


Numerous female innovators also had a strong interest in advancing career and academic roles for their gender. But some simply had a love of engineering or designing new tools and processes -- and they just happened to be women. Let's meet the first.

10: Martha Coston

The British Naval Fleet lights off flares to celebrate Elizabeth II ascending to the British throne. Not quite sure that's what Coston had in mind, guys.
G W Hales/Getty Images

How did a 21-year-old widow with four children take care of her family and help win battles and save lives in the Civil War? By engineering a signal system so ships could light up their locations on both land and sea.

Martha J. Coston (1826-1904) needed a way to support herself and her children after the death of her husband, and she decided to develop a design he had left behind in a notebook. Though her husband couldn't get the signal device to work, Coston revised the designs to include pyrotechnic components to create a long-lasting and multicolored system of flares.


After years of development and testing, Coston secured a patent for her Night Signals system in 1859, and the U.S. Navy bought the patent for $20,000. She also bid on and won the right to manufacture the devices. Her three-light design is an example of timely and effective product engineering and is said to have helped the North win the war. The system also was used by shippers and yachtsmen around the world for improved night navigation, keeping Coston's company productive into the 1970s [source: Engineer Girl].

9: Lillian Gilbreth

Helping people work better and more comfortably isn't just the job of the employer; often companies hire consultants to review working conditions in offices and factories and to make recommendations for the best workflow and setup. Ergonomics is an extension of that philosophy but in fitting out work spaces with tools and furnishings that make it easier and safer for employees to do their jobs.

Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972) contributed to industrial engineering by studying workplace patterns and scenarios and making recommendations for everything from the best order of tasks to the most efficient furniture designs and floor plans for specific workplaces. Gilbreth was the first to earn a degree in industrial psychology, getting her doctorate from Brown University in 1915. She became the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1926 and the first female professor at the School of Engineering, Purdue University, in 1935.


Gilbreth laid the foundation for work in what is now known as human factors engineering and ergonomic design, and she also had an impact on the business of managing, becoming known as the "Mother of Modern Management." And did we mention that she did all of this in the course of an 80-year career and while raising her 12 children -- a feat of human engineering in itself [sources: ASCE; SDSC].

8: Marilyn Jorgensen Reece

One of the most travelled pieces of highway in the entire United States was designed by a woman who said she studied engineering because she liked mathematics and "didn't want to be a teacher." During the time when Marilyn Jorgensen Reece (1926-2004) was in college, women who had an aptitude and bent toward the technical weren't often encouraged into many career paths other than teaching. Reece achieved distinction not only in becoming the first female to earn full licensing as a civil engineer in the state of California in 1954, but she also was entrusted with the design of the San Diego-Santa Monica freeway interchange in Los Angeles.

Among design critics, Reece's spiral design for the I-10 and 405 exchange is noteworthy for how it looks, but the designer herself spoke of the engineering behind the curvature and how the ultimate goal was to keep traffic moving by allowing drivers to maintain speed through the curves. And Reece also acknowledged that as a woman in engineering she had experienced few obstacles to slow down her career, having found help and support among her male colleagues [sources: McLellan; ASCE].


7: Beatrice A. Hicks

Many women who broke new ground in engineering excelled in more than one field of engineering, and Beatrice Hicks (1919-1979) is among them. She started by getting her bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 1939, but went on to join Western Electric, part of Bell Telephone, and helped develop new technologies for aerospace communications, as well as telephones.

Hicks also took courses in electrical engineering at Columbia University during this time and earned a master's degree in physics from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1949.


When her father died, Hicks took over the family business and engineered new technology for heating and cooling systems, which extended her experience into environmental engineering.

Although Hicks achieved a great deal in her lifetime and excelled in several fields of engineering, she recognized that her opportunities as a woman came in part due to the job openings created when men left to serve in World War II and in joining a family business where she could use her technology skills. Her commitment to opening up the field for other women led her to co-found the Society of Women Engineers in 1950, an organization with members across the U.S. and around the world today [source: IEEE].

6: Edith Clarke

Among other projects, Clarke weighed in on dam design.

Not many women in history have helped design dams, but Edith Clarke (1883-1959) was at the forefront in bringing sophisticated electrical engineering concepts to dam building in the western U.S.

Clarke was the first woman to earn a master's degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and became the first female chosen as a fellow by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE). Her initial round with higher education came after she was orphaned and used inheritance money to attend Vassar College.


After graduating from Vassar and before attending MIT, Clarke worked in computing at AT&T, but much of her career -- about 26 years -- was spent at General Electric Co. (GE). She had the distinction of becoming a salaried engineer in 1922, two years after being hired at GE, which was quite uncommon for a woman at that time. Clarke also won awards for her scholarly papers and a patent for a specialized calculator. After retiring from GE, she accomplished yet another first by becoming the first female teacher in the engineering department at the University of Texas, Austin.

Not a bad resume for an orphan girl from a small town in Maryland [source: IEEE].

5: Kate Gleason

The company that Kate and her family built has grown into a thriving company centered on all things gear-related.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

Although Kate Gleason (1865-1933) was the first female to enroll in the Mechanical Arts engineering program at Cornell University, and the first woman to be voted into membership with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), she never completed a formal degree program in engineering. She was called home from college to help with the family business, a machine shop she'd worked at since the age of 11. Gleason not only helped the business in a time of need, she and her brothers ultimately grew it into an international business, the Gleason Corporation, which is still thriving today. She traveled to Europe to sell the products of machinery for the manufacturing business and was instrumental in engineering design.

During Gleason's time in manufacturing she took on a project of her own and began drafting ideas for affordable housing for workers. She also developed a process for poured concrete and published an article entitled "How a Woman Builds Houses to Sell at a Profit of $4,000." Her engineering background and design innovations, combined with her business and sales skills, took her from coast to coast and overseas and her housing ideas spread [source: Giges].


4: Elsie Eaves

Seventy-five years after the society got its start, Eaves became the first female member.

Engineers need to have a high aptitude for numbers and mathematical reasoning, and Elsie Eaves (1898-1983) had that plus tremendous skill at building databases -- without the aid of computers. Eaves earned a degree in civil engineering in 1920 from the University of Colorado and worked in highway, railway and public roads engineering, but her main distinction may be in the area of data collecting and reporting. In 1926, Eaves started working for Engineering News-Record, and with a team of reporters nationwide, she tracked trends and spending in construction and chronicled business activities so well that she was later tasked with consulting on reports for governmental and municipal planning for urban housing, new construction and industrial sewage practices.

Her construction inventories became so well-known and respected that they became databases for other researchers, including those who needed supporting figures to drive new construction after the Great Depression. Eaves was voted in as the first female member -- and later, as a life member -- of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) [sources: Engineer Girl; University of Colorado at Boulder].


3: Mary Walton

Walton hunkered down with a model train set in her basement in order to come up with her inventions for noise pollution.

Little is recorded about the life of Mary Walton -- and how she came to excel at environmental engineering without specific training, and well before there was a specialized field of environmental engineering. Most records of Walton's two famous patents, however, cite her ingenuity in solving some new problems of the Industrial Age in a very old-fashioned way: by making models and experimenting at home.

With an explosion in manufacturing and the smoke and pollution that multiplied along with it, cleaning the air became a concern in the mid- to late- 19th century. In about 1879, Walton came up with a system for dampening some of the emissions before they were released into the air by deflecting them into sewage waters below rather than steam and smoke above. After securing a patent for that invention, she worked on noise pollution and fashioned a crude prototype for muffling the noise of city trains right in her Manhattan basement. Walton's wall system for dulling, or quieting, noisy train sounds worked in large-scale too, and she sold the patent to the New York City Metropolitan Railroad. Other rail lines nationwide adopted similar rail-wall systems [source: MIT].


2: Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards

It is no exaggeration to say that modern civilization wouldn't be thriving without good sanitation. Dating back well before the Romans started modernizing plumbing and sewage systems, mankind has had to tackle the issue of clean water and safe food. Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards (1842-1911) was the first woman to graduate from MIT, and not just in her discipline, chemistry, but in the history of the institution. She served in public health, sanitary engineering, mining engineering and chemistry, but Richards is best known as the founder of home economics.

Maybe our modern concept of home economics is more about "keeping house," but Richards was instrumental in teaching and spreading the word about safe food practices, healthy and affordable meal planning, and being more efficient in taking care of a home and family. She also advocated for serving lunches in schools and for teaching home economics in public classrooms. Richards had a mind for science and a passion for those who work at home [source: ASCE].


1: Emily Warren Roebling

Emily Warren Roebling would have delighted in the sight of the Brooklyn Bridge celebrating its 125 anniversary in May 2008.
Jemal Countess/Wire Image/Getty Images

How many lawyers did it take to finish building the Brooklyn Bridge? Just one, Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903). Although Roebling did not hold an engineering degree, but instead a law degree from New York University, she is famous for stepping in as an engineering manager of sorts and ensuring that the design work begun by her father-in-law and husband reached completion.

When Roebling's husband became too ill to work on the bridge after the death of his father, Roebling managed the project by taking extensive notes and communicating goals to the workman and financiers, while becoming self-taught in all aspects of civil and construction engineering. When the completion of the bridge appeared to be stalling and there was talk of replacing her husband as head engineer, Roebling defended the project and its leadership to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Her appeal was accepted and she was dubbed by some as the "silent builder" of the Brooklyn Bridge as it stands today [source: ASCE].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Women Who Broke New Ground in Engineering

Writing about these accomplished women reminded me of something surprising I learned about architecture and engineering years ago. Architects often have this glamorous reputation as being busy with the business of designing buildings and seeing them through to completion, when really, very few architects ever design anything that actually gets built. Engineering is similar in that most engineers do the background work and planning in very specialized areas, and very few conceive an entire dam, bridge or infrastructure project. You would really have to love calculating and solving problems for the sake of pure engineering to choose it as a career, because it's really a team operation, with most members in the background their entire lives.

Related Articles

  • American Society of Civil Engineers. "Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards." ASCE.org. 2012. (Aug. 30, 2012) http://www.asce.org/PPLContent.aspx?id=2147487328http://www.asce.org/People-and-Projects/People/Bios/Richards,-Ellen-Henrietta-Swallow/
  • American Society of Civil Engineers. "Emily Warren Roebling." ASCE.org. 2012. (Aug. 30, 2012) http://www.asce.org/PPLContent.aspx?id=2147487328
  • American Society of Civil Engineers. "Profiles: Engineers of the Past." ASCE.org. 2012. (Aug. 30, 2012) http://www.asce.org/People-and-Projects/People/Womens-History/Profiles--Engineers-of-the-Past/
  • EngineerGirl.com. "Elsie Eaves." EngineerGirl.com. 2012. (Aug. 29, 2012) http://www.engineergirl.org/?id=11837
  • EngineerGirl.com. "Martha J. Coston." EngineerGirl.com. 2012. (Aug. 29, 2012) http://www.engineergirl.org/?id=11831
  • Giges, Nancy. "Kate Gleason." ASME.org. May 2012. (Aug. 30, 2012) http://www.asme.org/kb/news---articles/articles/construction-and-building/kate-gleason
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Global History Network (GHN). "Beatrice Alice Hicks." IEEEGHN.org. 2012. (Sept. 1, 2012) http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Beatrice_Alice_Hicks
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Global History Network (GHN). "Edith Clark." IEEEGHN.org. 2012. (Aug 29, 2012) http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Edith_Clarke
  • Internet Movie Database (IMDb). "Cheaper by the Dozen." IMDb.com. 2012. (Sept. 1, 2012) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042327/
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "Mary Walton." Web.MIT.edu. November 1996. (Aug. 30, 2012) http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/walton.html
  • McLellan, Dennis. "Marilyn J. Reece, 77; State's First Licensed Female Civil Engineer." LATimes.com. May 21, 2004. (Sept. 1, 2012) http://articles.latimes.com/2004/may/21/local/me-reece21
  • San Diego Super Computer Center (SDSC). "Lillian Moller Gilbreth." SDSC.edu. 2012. (Sept. 1, 2012) http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/gilbreth.html
  • University of Colorado at Boulder. "Elsie Eaves." Colorado.edu. 2003. (Aug. 30, 2012) http://www.colorado.edu/engineering/deaa2/cgi-bin/display.pl?id=60