Edith Clarke’s pioneering career at the intersection of computation and electrical engineering
When Edith Clarke was growing up, women weren’t electrical engineers. Then again, there weren’t many women earning college degrees in the early 20th century either, but that didn’t stop the orphan from Maryland from using her saved inheritance to attend Vassar College. Vassar didn’t offer a degree in engineering, so Clarke instead earned a degree in astronomy and mathematics in 1908. Even after enrolling in a civil engineering program at the University of Wisconsin in 1911, Clarke’s path shifted again thanks to an engrossing job with AT&T as a “computer,” where she used here math skills to calculate probability functions. It wasn’t until World War I that Clarke would finally begin formal studies of electrical engineering, first at Columbia University then finishing at MIT in 1919.
Streamlining complex calculations
Clarke’s master’s degree from MIT wasn’t only a milestone for her, but it was the first electrical engineering degree earned by a woman at that school. Still, when she was hired to work for General Electric in that same year, it wasn’t as a salaried electrical engineer, as she was again employed for her math skills as a human computer. While computing was seen as more ‘appropriate’ for women at the time, she proved that it shouldn’t be considered a lesser station. By leveraging her understanding of both math and engineering, Clarke invented the Clarke Calculator, a device that changed how electrical engineering was conducted for men and women alike.
As the world became increasingly electrified, Clarke recognized that long-distance transmission lines were much more complicated than the shorter power lines most engineers were trained on at the time. The Clarke Calculator, resembling a tablet covered in grids, arcs and two pivoting rulers, enabled engineers to more easily calculate the performance of long-distance electrical transmission lines. By streamlining this kind of analysis, engineers could solve their hyperbolic equations in a tenth of the time it would take to do by hand while also having fewer opportunities to introduce costly errors. Clarke filed a patent for her device in 1921, although it wasn’t formally granted until 1925.
Clarke’s ingenuity didn’t go unnoticed. In 1922, she was finally recognized as a salaried electrical engineer at General Electric. In 1926, she was the first woman to present a research paper for the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, a precursor to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). She not only went on to become a voting member of that organization, but also a fellow in 1948. Clarke retired from here position at General Electric in 1947, but almost immediately left retirement to go back to work as the first female professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.
In 1954, five years before her death, Clarke was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers. When asked about her career, Clarke clearly understood the importance of the doors she opened, and wanted female engineers in the future to face fewer barriers than she had to overcome. Her work during the World Wars seems to have shaped her arguments on these matters, approaching it from a somewhat utilitarian point of view. The New York Times reported her belief that “women may help solve today’s critical need for technical manpower.” Clarke’s most famous quote took a similar tact, claiming that people shouldn’t worry about women’s sex, instead focusing on the fact that “there’s always demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work.“
Source: Edith Clarke (1883-1959) by Amy Hobbs, Maryland State Archives