Articles > Feature Articles

Women Engineers Make Their Mark

A brief history of women in engineering

By Shayna Sobol

A couple of years ago, a ripple of protest surrounded the film industry's "Year of the Woman" campaign. Based on a surge of success by female actresses, writers, directors and other behind-the-scenes players, the phrase, though meant to give recognition, came too little too late for many members of the entertainment community and fans alike. The same could be said of recent efforts to point the spotlight on the achievements of women engineers, if those efforts were not so sincere. While women engineers have been revolutionizing the field since at least the early 19th century, this humble lot has scarcely voiced their accomplishments to the world. The National Engineers Week Committee, which hosted its annual tribute to the field in late February of this year, thought it was high time to do something about the lack of awareness by the public of the overwhelming number of contributions made by women scientists and engineers over the last several decades.

With the help of historical data compiled by the New York City-based Society of Women Engineers, the National Engineers Week Committee brought to bear enough eye-opening history to make all of us stand up and take notice.

And the efforts to enlighten society won't end here. The Society of Women Engineers does its part to congratulate achievers in the field by awarding an annual "Distinguished New Engineer" award to several of its young members. National Engineers Week, too, will likely make the recognition of women engineers a continuing priority.

Recent figures released by the U.S. Department of Education's Center for Educational Statistics shows that the numbers of women obtaining bachelor's degrees in engineering increased nearly 10-fold between 1974 and 1994, while the number of women receiving master's degrees in the area more than doubled between 1984 and 1994. Those are signs that these recent efforts are not in vain.

Organizers of National Engineers Week are also committed to continuing the trend of bringing more women to the field of engineering. Already, there is plenty of reason for optimism. The Society of Women Engineers has grown from a few dozen women who banded together in the early 1950s to more than 15,000 members today, according to Anne Perusek, editor of the society's magazine. Women engineers also hold an ever-increasing number of positions of authority in private industry, government and education.

Upon reviewing a mere sampling of accomplished women engineers to date, one can only imagine what technological wonders are in store for the 21st century.

Contributors of Days Gone By

Mid- to Late 19th Century:
In the mid-1800s, Ada Byron Lovelace joined in a collaborative effort with Charles Babbage, the Englishman credited with inventing the forerunner of the modern computer. Lovelace wrote a scientific paper in 1843 that anticipated the development of computer software (including the term "software"), artificial intelligence and computer music. The U.S. Department of Defense computer language, "ADA," is named for her.

Ellen Swallow Richards pioneered the field of environmental engineering with her groundbreaking research into water contamination. In 1870, she helped conduct the first analysis of Massachusetts' water supply and led the research on two subsequent testings. She showed remarkable foresight with her insistence that the earth's environment be examined as a whole, rather than in "bits and pieces." She also urged tighter controls over solid waste disposal and air, food and water purity.

Early 20th Century:
Mary Engle Pennington revolutionized food delivery with her invention of an insulated train car cooled with ice beds, allowing for the first time the long-distance transport of perishable food.

After Mary Anderson noticed that streetcar drivers were opening their windows for visibility in rainy weather, she invented the windshield wiper in 1903. By 1916, windshield wipers were standard equipment on all American cars.

In the 1920s and '30s, Beulah Louise Henry was known as "the lady Edison for" the many inventions she patented, including a bobbinless lock-stitch sewing machine, a doll with bendable arms, a vacuum ice-cream freezer, a doll with a radio inside, and a typewriter that made multiple copies without carbon paper. Henry took her inventions a step further by founding manufacturing companies to produce her creations and made a sizable fortune in the process.

Hedy Lamarr, the 1940s actress known for her line, "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid," invented a sophisticated and unique anti-jamming device for use against Nazi radar. While the U.S. War Department rejected her design, years after her patent had expired, Sylvania adapted the design for a device that today speeds satellite communications around the world. Lamarr received neither money, recognition, nor credit.

Mid- to Late 20th century:
Grace Murray Hopper, a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, developed the first computer compiler in 1952. She coined the term "bug" (i.e., computer bug) upon discovering a moth that had jammed the works of an early computer. In 1991, Hopper became the first woman, as an individual, to receive the National Medal of Technology.

Stephanie Kwolek's discovery of a poly-made solvent in 1966 led to the production of "Kevlar," the crucial component used in canoe hulls, auto bodies and bullet-proof vests.

Legends in Our Midst

As part of the 1989 flight on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, Dr. Mary L. Cleave was part of a mission team that launched the first planetary probe deployed from a shuttle. She also served as Deputy Project Manager for an ocean color sensor satellite that monitors global marine chlorophyll concentration, a critical factor in determining the health of the seas. The satellite launched in 1995.

The use of semiconductor lasers for communication, CD players and printers owes much to Ellsa Garmire, whose advancements in optical devices and quantum electronics made the commercial use of lasers feasible. Starting with a physics degree from Harvard and a PhD in physics from MIT, Garmire went on to discover and explain key features of light-scattering and self-focusing. In 1994, Garmire was honored with the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award.

Dr. Sheila E. Widnall was the first woman to serve on the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, guaranteeing her place in history. Her service as Secretary of the Air Force, with responsibility for 380,000 active-duty personnel, 251,000 members of the Air National Guard and 184,000 civilians added another incredible achievement to her already impressive list. Today, she has returned to teach at MIT, where she received her doctorate in science in 1964.

Not to be Forgotten

Naomi Brill is an aerospace engineer who worked on the first satellites and patented a process that boosted the efficiency of rocket fuel.

Yvonne Clark, P.E., is a mechanical engineering professor at Tennessee State, one of the first black women engineers from the pre-Civil Rights era.

Arminta Harness, United States Air Force, Ret., was the first woman engineer in the Air force.

Emily Roobling took over the building of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband became too ill to continue the project.

Mary Ross worked at Lockheed. Because much of her work was classified, the public is just beginning to find out about the contributions she made during her career.

Katharine Stinson, personally encouraged by Amelia Earhart to fly, had a 32-year career with the Federal Aviation Administration.

History in the Making

The Distinguished New Engineer Award was established by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in 1978 to honor women who are actively engaged in the engineering profession. These are women who have demonstrated outstanding performance in engineering and leadership within the first 10 years of their careers. As members of SWE and otherwise active in the engineering community, they are a clear sign that the future for women in the field is bright indeed.

Toni L. Doolen
An engineering manager at Hewlett-Packard's Inkjet Supplies Business Unit in Corvallis, Ore., Doolen plays a leadership role in managing highly automated manufacturing lines that produce inkjet cartridges for the company's deskjet printers.

Jill Fahrenholtz
Fahrenholtz is acting manager of the intelligent systems principles department at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. She leads multidisciplinary teams that develop integrated hardware, software and safety systems, along with quality documentation for robotic systems that handle and package retired radioactive nuclear weapon parts.

Marie Lapalnte
When Laplante left Rhone-Poulenc in 1995 to work for ARCO Chemical company as a senior project engineer in the maintenance engineering department, she successfully made the transition from a small plant site and culture to a much larger site. Recently, she was named the engineering design supervisor at ARCO, where she has been recognized for her contributions on the Workforce 2000 team and received an Excel Award for leading a "Management of Change" committee.

Alma Martinez
An employee of the Newport News Shipyard, Martinez is currently one of 37 people assigned and dedicated full-time by the company to re-engineer major processes to support the changing Navy, commercial shipbuilding contracts, and globalization of shipbuilding. She led three projects within the material sourcing and handling team, which paved the way to designing, documenting and implementing each project. With her leadership, the new design processes reduced engineering man hours by 20 percent.

Mary Kay Nye
Nye is a performance analyst for Shell Oil Company at the Martinez, Calif., refinery. Formerly an instructor at Shell's Process Control Training Center, Martinez was invited to present her process control project results to the University of California, Davis Graduate School Seminar Series. Today she works with senior management to set strategy and priorities for the company.

Information and statistics used in this piece were compiled by the National Engineers Week Committee and the Magazine of the Society of Women Engineers.

women in technology



Articles > Feature Articles

newletter