We’ve chosen 10 amazing women engineers, from the past to the present, whose work has had (or is currently having) a profound impact on engineering and society.
Joe Palca captures the simple yet intriguing story of Mary Anderson, the inventor of the windshield wiper, in an NPR article entitled “Alabama Woman Stuck in NYC Traffic in 1902 Invented the Windshield Wiper.” Riding along in a New York City streetcar on a snowy day in 1903, Mary realized the white flakes landing on the windows meant neither she nor the driver could see out properly. Her response was to invent the windshield wiper. She secured a patent for her design but couldn’t persuade vehicle manufacturers to adopt it. However, once the patent lapsed and cars had become more commonplace, others copied the idea and the windshield wiper became the standard vehicle fixture it is today. Happily, Anderson was still alive to see her invention have global impact.
Following studies in mathematics, astronomy, civil engineering, and electrical engineering—and not to mention her work at AT&T for several years—Edith Clarke embarked on a long career with General Electric. There, she filed a patent for her “graphical calculator” to help solve power line transmission issues, which were a significant and growing problem at the time. She was also the first female electrical engineering professor in the US, the first woman to be elected as a fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now the IEEE), and was a vital player with indispensable insight and involvement in the construction of the Hoover Dam (see “Five Fast Facts About Engineer Edith Clarke” published on March 19, 2015, for the US Department of Energy).
You may have heard of Gleason Corporation: Its machine tools are widely used in the aerospace, automotive, and energy industries. The current company owes its success in part to Kate Gleason, who started helping her father William in his machine shop when she was only years old. She and her brothers continued to build the company, setting it on a path towards where it is today. Gleason became the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ first female member in 1918, and the society’s foundation now has an award named in her honor.
The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources highlights one of its most inventive minds and once natives: Known as “Lady Edison,” Beulah Louise Henry was one of the world’s most prolific inventors. Of her 100 plus creations (49 of which were granted patents), highlights include a vacuum ice cream freezer, a revolutionary bobbin-less sewing machine, a duplication device for typewriters, sponges that held soap in the middle, and umbrellas with swappable covers (see americacomesalive.com). Her achievements are even more impressive when you consider she had no formal training in technology or mechanics.
While Hedy Lamarr was perhaps best known as an actress, arguably her more lasting legacy is in engineering. During the Second World War, she jointly secured a patent for the “Secret Communication System”. While this was originally intended for wartime military use with guided missiles, it has become an integral part of the way modern cellular phone communications work. (For more information, see hedylamarr.com.)
Currently the chief executive officer (CEO) of Muse Technologies, Linda Cureton has held several senior technology management roles with organizations such as the US Department of Energy; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where she was Chief Information Officer (see lindacureton.com). Cureton also sits on various advisory boards and has won widespread recognition for her work, including being named in Business Insider as one of the “…25 Powerful Women Engineers In Tech.”
Featuring the story of Jeri Ellsworth, in his article entitled “From Hacker to Valve and Back Again…” in Polygon, Brian Crecente describes Ellsworth as one who developed a fascination for how things worked as a child. She began dismantling toys and other equipment around her home, which led to tinkering with a Commodore 64 to try to “get it to play other games.” After a period of building her own racing cars, working at the video game developer Valve Corporation, and running her own augmented-reality tech startup, she’s now a regular conference speaker, amateur radio operator, and inventor.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate Ayah Bdeir is the founder and CEO of littleBits, a building-blocks platform that encourages children to invent things. As Bdeir underscores in her bio, littleBits employs 100 people, has raised more than $60 million in investments, and has won more than 150 awards. Bdeir is a senior TED fellow and her TED talk about littleBits has been watched more than 1.2 million times. Her work has also afforded her recognition among “Business Insider’s 26 Most Powerful Women Engineers,” “MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35,” and among those on “CNBC’s Next List.” (For more information, see ayahbdeir.com.)
After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in mechanical engineering and product design—which is a male-dominated career path—Debbie Sterling wanted to encourage more girls to pursue engineering by “disrupting the pink aisle” in toy shops, as her company’s website, GoldieBlox.com, boldly declares. Focusing on girl engineers, Sterling founded GoldieBlox to provide books, toys, apps, and more. Her work has been a massive hit with the public, and recognizing her success, US President Barack Obama selected her to be a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship.
In 2005, MIT electrical engineering and computer science graduate Limor “Ladyada” Fried set up Adafruit, an online portal for makers of all abilities to learn about electronics and buy high-quality components for their designs. Adafruit has been ranked among the USA’s top 10 manufacturing companies in the Inc. 5000, and according to WIRED magazine, Fried became the first female engineer to appear on its cover. Entrepreneur magazine also awarded her with the title of Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012.
Sarah is a Social Media Specialist at Mouser Electronics and a recent graduate of Texas Christian University. When she’s not at work, she enjoys cheering on the horned frogs and eating her way through every Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth.
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