Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Edith Clarke (1883-1959)
MSA SC 3520-14065

Brief Biography:

Born in Howard County, Maryland.  Attended Vassar College (math), graduated 1908; University of Wisconsin (electrical engineering); Massachusetts Institute of Technology (electrical engineering), M.S.

Math teacher.  Computor, AT&T, New York; General Electric Company.  Patented invention of graphical calculator for use in the solution of electric power transmission problems.  Physics instructor, Constantinople Women's College in Turkey, one year.  Engineer, Central Station Engineering Department, General Electric Company.  First woman to be accepted as a full voting member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, which became IEEE in 1963).  First Fellow, AIEE, 1948; the first woman to be so honored.  Author or co-author of nineteen technical papers between 1923 and 1951.  Author, Circuit Analysis of A. C. Systems.  Professor, University of Texas at Austin (first woman to teach in the engineering department), 1947.  Retired, 1956.  Member, Phi Beta Kappa honor society.  Recipient, Society of Women Engineer's Achievement Award, 1954.  Honoree, American  National Biography, Notable American Women of the Modern Period, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, published 2002.  Inductee, Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, 2003.

Extended Biography:

Born in the nineteenth century when women of a certain social class were not expected to work, Edith Clarke broke free of  binding stereotypes to join the cutting edge of the information revolution of the twentieth century.  As an electrical engineer for General Electric (GE), Clarke spent twenty years improving power systems. Then, as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Clarke wrote a textbook that became the standard of her field.  Her story is an inspiration for women in a field still dominated by men.

On February 10, 1883, Edith Clarke was born on a four-hundred acre farm about three miles from Ellicott City in Howard County, Maryland.  One of nine children in a prosperous family, Edith enjoyed a typical, upper middle class upbringing in rural Maryland.  While the Civil War brought disruptions and tragedy to the family, Edith's childhood was remarkably similar to that of generations before her.  She was expected to grow up to be a charming hostess, gracious wife, and loving mother.  To that end, she was sent to Briarley Hall, a boarding school for girls in Montgomery County, Maryland.  There, for the most part, she received a typical education.  Upon graduating at the age of sixteen, Edith could play a little piano, speak a little French, and knew a smattering of classic English literature, history and Latin.  What was atypical was the strenuous grounding in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry that she gained in school.  These talents were the foundation of her most unusual career.1

After graduation, Edith returned home.  Sadly, she had been orphaned at an early age and was under the care of relatives.  As she sorted out what would come next in her life, Edith continued reading and studying; she was especially interested in foreign countries and travel, and began to teach herself Greek.  Against the advice of her family and friends, Edith decided to use a small inheritance to attend Vassar College.2  As a member of the first generation of women in America to attend college in serious numbers, Edith was an oddity at home, but found many kindred spirits upon arriving at Vassar.  She began when she was eighteen, threw herself into the pleasures of co-ed life, majored in math and astronomy, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1908.3  After graduation, Edith taught school, first at a private institution in San Francisco, then at Marshall College in Huntington, West Virginia.  However, teaching was not quite the profession Edith had in mind, so she began casting about for something else to do.4

In the fall of 1911, Edith Clarke enrolled at the University of Wisconsin as a civil engineering student.  While she already had a degree, she was classified as an undergraduate for her course work.  Edith quickly re-embraced college life; she joined the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma and won a tennis championship in women's doubles.5  The summer after her first year, Edith took a job that changed her life.  She worked as a "computer assistant" to Dr. George Campbell at AT&T in Boston.  While she had planned to return to Wisconsin to finish her program, Edith found the work so interesting that she stayed on for six years, training and directing a group of computors.  She eventually enrolled in the electrical engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  In 1919, Edith Clarke became the first woman to earn a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering at MIT.6

Degree in hand, Clarke began to look for permanent work as an electrical engineer.  Unfortunately, she was unable to find an engineering position, so she settled in at General Electric (GE) as a "computor."  There she worked in a separate women's division within the Turbine Engineering Department, training and supervising women who calculated the mechanical stresses in turbines.7  While working there, she filed for her first patent, for a graphical calculator used to solve electric power transmission line computations.  Frustrated that she was not a salaried engineer at GE, Clarke took time off for a position at Constantinople Women's College in Turkey in 1921.  There, she combined her love of travel with the more practical work of teaching physics to eager young women.  When her contract ended, she took four months to travel in Europe, spending time in Austria, Germany, Holland, and England.  In 1922, Clarke returned to General Electric and, at the age of thirty-nine, finally got a full-time position as an electrical engineer.  She found the work so compelling that she stayed until retirement in 1945.8  After publishing her first paper in 1923, titled "Transmission Line Calculator," she was the first woman to deliver a paper at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) in 1926.9 In her work for the Central Station Engineering Department of GE in Schenectady, New York, Clarke created calculators to monitor and predict the performance of electrical transmission lines.  She also developed 60-cycle performance charts that became the standard for the industry.  In her work, she received at least two more patents, one for electric power transmission in 1927 and the other for an electric circuit in 1944.  She also published the two-volume text, Circuit Analysis of A-C Power Systems, in 1943.  The work quickly became the main textbook for new engineers.10

In 1945, when Edith Clarke retired to her farm in rural Maryland, she thought she would retreat from the discipline that had held her attention for so long.  However, when she was offered a professorship at the University of Texas in Austin, she could not refuse and became the first female professor of engineering at Texas and perhaps in the country.  She happily taught for ten years at the university.  When she retired for the second time in 1956, she was widely recognized as an authority on electric power systems.  While at the University of Texas, Clarke was also a consultant on the design of a number of dams in the West.11  Clarke spent the last few years of her life on her farm in Maryland and passed away October of 1959  at the age of 76.  When Clarke left Texas, she was interviewed about her significant career for the New York Times.  The reporter for the piece commented that "she believes that women may help solve today's critical need for technical manpower."12  The woman who had once been expected to host teas and play piano had indeed proven that women could answer the twentieth century's need for "technical manpower."

Throughout her career, Clarke was honored by men and women alike.  She was the first woman to earn professional standing in Tau Beta Pi, the nation's largest and oldest electrical engineering fraternity.  She also published numerous papers in the AIEE Transactions and General Electric Review.  Through these publications she won two important awards from AIEE (now IEEE): the Best Regional Paper Prize in 1932 and the Best National Paper Prize in 1941.   In addition, she was the first woman elected as a fellow of the AIEE.  At the end of her career, she was given an award from the Society of Women Engineers for outstanding contributions to the field, and she was listed in Who's Who in Engineering, American Women, Careers for Women, Women Can Be Engineers, and Men of Science.13 She was posthumously inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame in 2003.  Her early fascination with math and a daring decision to attend college ended with a true contribution to the scientific advancements of the twentieth century.


1.  Goff, Alice C., Women Can Be Engineers. Edwards Brothers Inc: Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1946. pp. 51-65.  return to text

2.  Hoffman, Mary Ann.  "Women's History Month: Edith Clarke."  IEEE History Center.  October 8, 2002.  return to text

3.  Yale University.  "Past Notable Women of Computing."  The Ada Project.  return to text

4.  Goff.  return to text

5.  Ibid.  return to text

6.  Yale University.  "Past Notable Women of Computing."  The Ada Project.  return to text

7.   Oldenziel, Ruth.  Making Technology Masculine: Men Women and Machines in America, 1870-1945.  Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999.  return to text

8.  IEEE.  "Edith Clarke."  IEEE Virtual Museum.  return to text

9.  Liu, Yilu.  "Edith Clarke: A Calculating Woman."  Virtual Museum of Virginia Tech.  return to text

10.  Stanley, Autumn, Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology. The Scarecrow Press, Inc.: Metuchen, New Jersey, 1993.   return to text

11.  Faculty Council.  "In Memoriam: Edith Clarke."  The Universtiy of Texas at Austin.  return to text

12.  Yale University.  "Past Notable Women of Computing."  The Ada Project.   return to text

13.  Faculty Council.  "In Memoriam: Edith Clarke."  The Universtiy of Texas at Austin.  return to text

Extended biography written by 2004 summer intern, Amy Hobbs.

Return to Edith Clarke's Introductory Page

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