For most of us, America’s vast electrical infrastructure is something we take for granted, rarely think about until it goes down, and don’t really understand. But for Edith Clarke it was the stuff of dreams. A pioneer in electrical engineering, and role model for every young woman pursuing a STEM education today, she used the power of math to improve our understanding of power transmission at a time when engineering was a man’s world and women just didn’t “do” science.
Think of a song born of wind bubbles, visual swoops, clouds and something called a “wobbulator.” Hummable, with a strong beat, but totally unique. One of the most-heard and instantly recognizable pieces of music today. Give up? It’s the theme for the popular British TV sci-fi series Doctor Who; and it was created by Delia Derbyshire, referred to as the “unsung hero of British electronic music.”
She is the only champion of women’s rights in the last two centuries to have both a crater on the moon and an asteroid named in her honor. Maria Mitchell was a star of 19th century American science who used astronomy to expand the boundaries of what women could expect and achieve. Her life and work are a root of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) movement that today draws ever larger numbers of young women to scientific careers. But, ironically, Mitchell is not well know to most of them.
Josephine Silone-Yates, the first African American certified to teach in Rhode Island public schools, also became America’s first black female college professor and the first black female to head a major college science department. Aside from her role in the field of what would later be called STEM education, she also became a national advocate for the rights of black women.
That Bessie Blount Griffin became a inventor, physical therapist, business women, forensics expert and social activist before she passed on in 2009 is all the more remarkable, given that she was born in an era before women — particularly African American women — could expect opportunities in any one of the multiple fields in which she ultimately succeeded. Her life is a lesson in tenacity, irrepressible creativity and a deep sense of empathy for the people and causes she helped.
A practical and creative nineteenth-century boarding house owner, Mary Elizabeth Walton was used to solving mechanical problems. So it was only natural that, when the noise and smoke of the elevated railway next to her building became intolerable, she set out to reinvent the era’s train technology — and succeeded, even where Thomas Edison himself had failed.