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Edith Clarke


photo of Edith Clarke

Edith Clarke (1883-1959) was born in Howard County, Maryland. At the age of eighteen, she received a small inheritance and went to Vassar College, where she concentrated on mathematics and astronomy. She graduated in 1908 with honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key. She taught math for a while, but became disillusioned with it. In 1911, after a serious illness, she decided to return to school and study engineering. This was something she always wanted to do. She enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, and worked during the summers for AT&T in New York. She was hired as a computor, or someone who solves mathematical equations.

Ms. Clarke left New York to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned her masters in electrical engineering, becoming the first woman to earn a degree in that field from MIT. Ms. Clarke found opportunities for women in the engineering field very limited, so she went to work as a computor again, this time for General Electric. It was during this time that she filed a patent application describing her invention of a graphical calculator to be used in the solution of electric power transmission problems.

Anxious to see the world, Ms. Clarke took a leave of absence to travel throughout Europe. She taught physics for a year at Constantinople Women's College in Turkey. Upon her return to New York, Ms. Clarke finally achieved her life-long goal--to work as an engineer for the Central Station Engineering Department of General Electric. This made her the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the United States, and was the first woman to be accepted as a full voting member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, which became IEEE in 1963). She retired in 1945, and became a Fellow of AIEE in 1948; the first woman to be so honored.

Ms. Clarke authored or co-authored nineteen technical papers between 1923 and 1951. She was the first woman to present an AIEE paper. In 1941, she and a colleague were awarded "best paper of the year." Additionally, Ms. Clarke authored a two-volume reference textbook, Circuit Analysis of A. C. Systems.

In 1947 she became a full professor at the University of Texas, in Austin. This made her the first woman to teach in the engineering department at the University of Texas. She retired for a second time in 1956, when she returned to her farm in Howard County. Ms. Clarke received the Society of Women Engineer's Achievement Award in 1954, and was selected for inclusion in Women of Achievement in Maryland History in 1998. Ms. Clarke was also included in American National Biography and Notable American Women of the Modern Period. Ms. Clarke died in 1959 at the age of seventy-six.

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2003.

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