Edith Clarke

Edith Clarke 1883 - 1959 , 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.

Above: typical transmission lines with lightning suppression in Edith Clarke's time

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 instability. 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."

Also learn about her fellow mathematician C.P. Steinmetz

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Edison Tech Center
General Electric

Edwin Reilly Jr.
The General Electric Story. by Bernard Gorowitz. 1999

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