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.
And, along the way, she racked up some pretty impressive “firsts.” She was the first woman to receive a degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the first woman to deliver a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and America’s first female engineering professor in a male-dominated field. She wrote a comprehensive textbook still used in engineering schools and colleges, and was awarded two patents for her work in electrical power transmission.
Orphaned at 12
Edith Clarke, one of nine children, was born in 1883 to a family of means just outside Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a lawyer and gentleman farmer. He died when she was just seven years old, leaving her mother to run the farm until she, too, died five years later, leaving Clarke orphaned at the age of 12.
As a child, she had trouble with reading and spelling, but showed an exceptional aptitude for math and loved card games — especially Whist, which Poe describes in his “Murders in the Rue Morgue” as requiring an analytical mind.
After her mother’s death, Clarke and her siblings were brought up by an uncle before she was sent to Briarley Hall Female Academy in Maryland. She credited her training there in arithmetic, algebra and geometry as the foundation of her career.
Math and astronomy
She was 18 when she came into an inheritance from her parents’ estate which, despite her relatives’ disapproval, she used to enroll in Vassar College, hoping to study engineering. But Vassar hadn’t opened this field of study to women in the early 1900s, so Clarke she settled for math and astronomy, graduating in 1908 with Phi Beta Kappa honors and a bachelor’s degree.
With her newly-minted degree, she taught math at a private girls’ school in San Francisco for a year before heading back east to Marshall College in
Huntington, West Virginia, where she spent two years. But she soon discovered teaching wasn’t for her: “Teaching is not at all like a game of Duplicate Whist! I therefore turned to something else.”
But in pursuit of that “something else,” she became seriously ill in 1911 — so ill she feared she might die. Which made her realize it was time to finally do what she had always wanted — study engineering. After regaining her health, she enrolled in the University of Wisconsin’s civil engineering program. But at the end of her first year, a summer job as a “computer assistant” assigned to solve mathematical equations at AT&T in New York proved so interesting, she wound up staying for six years.
By that time, the United States had entered into World War I and Edith Clarke wanted to contribute to the war effort. Believing she needed more education in her field, she left AT&T to enroll as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And in 1919, she received the first Master of Science degree in electrical engineering ever granted to a woman by MIT.
A GE “human computer”
Unfortunately, the war’s end meant there were few jobs for female engineers; Clarke, despite her success at MIT, couldn’t find a job as an electrical engineer. She took a job with General Electric in New York, where she trained and directed a cadre of female “human computers.” But, as a woman, Clarke neither earned the same salary nor was afforded the same professional status as her male colleagues.
Plus, she had been bitten by the travel bug. So, in 1921, she left GE for a one-year job teaching physics at the Constantinople Women’s College in Turkey. And when she returned to GE in 1922, it was as a salaried electrical engineer. She remained at General Electric’s Central Station Engineering Department for 23 years.
National electrical infrastructure
During those years, she focused on something we all take for granted without really understanding how it works: the national electrical infrastructure and its many vulnerabilities. In 1921, building on existing theories of alternating current, Clarke filed a patent for her most important contribution to her field: a calculating device to simplify the complex equations electrical engineers used to understand power lines. The official patent for the Clarke Calculator, U.S. Patent #1,552,113, was granted in 1925.
Building on her success, she became the first woman to present before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1926. It was a time when transmission lines were getting longer; longer lines meant greater electrical loads; and greater loads meant more chances for the system to go down. Clarke came up with a model for a power system and its behavioral characteristics that let engineers analyze these newly-emerging, more complex systems. An innovative idea at the time, it is seen today as the first step toward what we know as “smart grid” technology.
Text book author
Clarke was also a prolific writer, authoring or coauthoring numerous papers and articles during this period. Her comprehensive electrical engineering textbook for use in engineering schools and colleges, titled Circuit Analysis of A-C Power Systems, was published in 1943, followed by a second volume in 1950.
As a student of environmental energy, Clarke also contributed to the design of many dams built near the West Coast, including Hoover Dam. Located between Nevada and Arizona in the Colorado River, it uses hydroelectric power. As water passes through the dam, it turns turbines that create energy as they rotate; that energy is stored in large electric generators. It is this process Edith Clarke helped pioneer.
Expecting to retire in 1945, she went back to her roots, buying a farm in rural Maryland. But two years later, she changed her mind. By accepting a full professorship in electrical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, Clarke became America’s first female engineering professor. She taught there until her retirement in 1956. Spending her final years on her Maryland farm, Edith Clarke died of a heart attack at age 76 in 1959.
Hall of Fame
In 2015, she was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, joining a rarefied group of engineers and scientists — including Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell — whose achievements helped change the world. Among the 22 inductees who had been employed by General Electric during their careers, Clarke and one other woman, physicist Katherine Blodgett, were the only female honorees.
Edith Clarke, the leading female electrical engineer of her day, once told the Dallas Morning News, “I had always wanted to be an engineer, but felt women were not supposed to be doing things like studying engineering.”
Today, she would be dismayed by what is still a marked gender imbalance when it comes to those earning a degree in electrical engineering. Using 2017 statistics, Data USA reports that at the five US institutions graduating the most students in electrical engineering, a whopping 82.7% of those students are male. Those institutions include the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of CA-Berkeley, University of Southern CA, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of TX, Austin, where Edith Clarke spent the last nine years of her career.