Edith
Clarke 1883  1959
Edith Clarke, born in a
small farming community in Maryland in 1883, went to Vassar College to
study mathematics and astronomy and graduated in 1908 with Phi Beta
Kappa honors. Subsequently, she taught mathematics at a private girls'
school in San Francisco, and then at Marshall College in Huntington,
WV. In the fall of 1911, Edith enrolled as a civil engineering student
at the University of Wisconsin. At the end of her first year, she took
a summer job as a "Computer Assistant" to AT&T research engineer
Dr. George Campbell and was so interested in her work that she stayed
on at AT&T to train and direct a group of (human) "computers."
In 1918, Edith
left to enroll in the EE program at MIT, earning her MSc. degree, the
first such degree ever awarded by that department to a woman, in June
1919. She then took a job as a "computer" for General Electric in
Schenectady, NY, and in 1921 filed a patent for a "graphical
calculator" to be employed in solving electric power transmission line
problems.
In 1921, Edith
took leave from GE to take a position as a professor of physics at the
Constantinople Women's College in Turkey and returned to GE in 1922 as
a salaried electrical engineer. In 1926, Edith Clarke was the first
woman to present a paper before the
American Institute of Electrical Engineers. This paper was of critical
national importance. At the time, transmission lines were getting
longer,
and with longer lines came greater loads and more chances for system
instability. Unfortunately, the mathematical models available at the
time
applied only to small systems. Edith
applied a mathematical technique called the method of symmetrical components
to model a power system and its behavior. This permitted her and other
engineers to determine characteristics essential to analyzing large
systems.
Clarke wrote and
published a great deal. She wrote many, many useful
papers pertaining to power distribution and synchronous machines and a
comprehensive EE textbook for engineering schools
and colleges. She also received two patents related to electrical power
transmission.
In 1947 Clarke left GE
after 26 years to teach electrical engineering at the University
of Texas, Austin, where she became the first female EE professor in the
US and worked there until retirement in 1956. She became the
first woman to be elected a fellow
of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (which became the
Institute
of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, IEEE). In 1954, she received
a lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Women Engineers.
The Award cited
her contributions to the field in the form of her simplifying charts
and
her work in system unstability. Edith Clarke died five years later, on
October 29, 1959 in Olney, Maryland.
Dr. James E. Brittain's
paper, "From Computer to Electrical Engineer  the Remarkable Career of
Edith Clarke," explains why Edith was a pioneer for women in both
engineering and computing:
"Edith Clarke's engineering career had as
its central theme the development and dissemination of mathematical
methods that tended to simplify and reduce the time spent in laborious
calculations in solving problems in the design and operation of
electrical power systems. She translated what many engineers found to
be esoteric mathematical methods into graphs or simpler forms during a
time when power systems were becoming more complex and when the initial
efforts were being made to develop electromechanical aids to problem
solving. As a woman who worked in an environment traditionally
dominated by men, she demonstrated effectively that women could perform
at least as well as men if given the opportunity. Her outstanding
achievements provided an inspiring example for the next generation of
women with aspirations to become career engineers."
