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Edith Clarke: A Trailblazing Leader for Women and a Pioneer in Computing and Engineering  

This profile on Edith Clarke is the ninth post in a month-long series of profiles about female STEM innovators in honor of Women’s History Month. Check back each weekday to read a new profile. 

Long before computers were invented, a group “human computors” were used to solve complex mathematical equations. One of the first and highest regarded “human computors” was Edith Clarke, an electrical engineer with a deep understanding of complex mathematical equations1.  

Clarke, born in Howard County, Maryland in 1883, was orphaned when she was thirteen1. This incident, though tragic, did result in one positive event-Clarke used the money from her inheritance to enroll in college1,2.  

Clarke enrolled in Vassar College where she earned a earn a bachelor’s degree after studying mathematics and astronomy3. Clarke used her new degree and the Phi Beta Kappa honors she graduated with to take a job as a math teacher for a private school and a small college on the west coast, but soon became bored with this job1,3. To advance her career and satiate her curious mind, Clarke returned to school, this time enrolling in the University of Wisconsin’s civil engineering program2. 

During the summer break after she completed her first year at the University of Wisconsin, Clarke took a job as a “computor assistant” alongside Dr. George Ashley Campbell, a now renowned researcher for his work at AT&T1,3. When World War I broke out in 1914, Clarke led a group of women who were also “human computors” to complete calculations used for the Transmission and Protection Engineering Department at AT&T2,4

Clarke became enthralled with her work which came to include training other computor assistants. After nearly 7 years of this work, Clarke left to pursue her original goal of higher learning1. Clarke enrolled in MIT’s electrical engineering program where she earned an MSc. degree in 1919 and became the first woman to ever receive this degree from the engineering department1

This major accomplishment, led Clarke to her next achievement. After graduation from MIT, Clarke took a position with General Electric (GE), again as a “computor.3” While she worked for GE, Clarke filed for a patent on her invention of a graphical calculator used to solve electric power transmission issues2,3

"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,” Dr. James E. Brittain wrote in a paper titled "From Computor to Electrical Engineer - the Remarkable Career of Edith Clarke1. “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.” 

After years of work and innovation, Clarke decided to travel. She went to Europe and while there, taught at Constantinople Women's College in Turkey1,3.  She then returned to America to work at her dream job as an engineer for GE’s Central Station Engineering Department, yet again making her an industry first, as the first professional female electrical engineer in the U.S.1. In addition to this, Clarke was also the first woman to be accepted as a full voting member of what was then referred to as the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), now called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and became the first woman to be named a Fellow of AIEE in 1948 after she retired1.   

“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,” Dr. Brittain also wrote. “Her outstanding achievements provided an inspiring example for the next generation of women with aspirations to become career engineers.1

Before her death in 1957, Clarke authored or co-authored nineteen technical papers, was the first woman to present an AIEE paper, authored a two-volume reference textbook titled Circuit Analysis of A. C. Systems, became the first woman to teach in the engineering department at the University  of Texas1.  Clarke retired a second and final time in 1956 to return to her Maryland home. Mere years before her death, Clarke also received the Society of Women Engineer's Achievement Award and was included in the Women of Achievement in Maryland History, the American National Biography, and Notable American Women of the Modern Period1,3.  In 2015, Clarke was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame5

 

References: 

  1. Edison Tech Center. (2014). Edith Clarke. Retrieved from https://edisontechcenter.org/Clarke.html

  1. Engineer Girl. (2020). Edith Clarke Trailblazer. Retrieved from https://www.engineergirl.org/125222/Edith-Clarke

  1. Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. (2003).  Edith Clarke (1883 - 1959). Retrieved from https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/clarke.html

  1. Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers. (2009). From Computor to Electrical Engineer, pg 145. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=QRa6fTwRcwwC&pg=PA145&lpg=PA145&dq=Transmission+and+Protection+Engineering+Department+at%26t&source=bl&ots=P_Kt1jKu-n&sig=ACfU3U2kWWJpOXDb2KMYFnDIpPzPcdplDQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjY_ZC58bPoAhV8lHIEHT4LBrgQ6AEwAHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=Transmission%20and%20Protection%20Engineering%20Department%20at%26t&f=false

  2. National Inventors Hall of Fame. (2020). Edith Clarke. Retrieved from https://www.invent.org/inductees/edith-clarke.