Petticoats and Slide Rules
These pioneering women refused to leave engineering to the men.
BY EVA KAPLAN-LEISERSON
etticoats are not incompatible with slide rules, argued Margaret Ingels. In her 1952 speech to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, the mechanical engineer emphasized that a woman who joined the engineering profession took on a responsibility to “widen the trails blazed for her—and more. She must build them into great highways for women engineers of the future to travel, free of prejudices and discrimination.”
Ingels knew of what she spoke. The first woman in the country to receive a graduate degree in mechanical engineering, she launched her career in the early 1900s and was one of a number of women who paved the road early on. She is among the female engineers highlighted in a new book, Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers.
Today, women comprise just 13% of engineers, according to the latest National Science Foundation data. There is still much room for improvement in bringing diversity to the profession. These examples may motivate a new generation.
Emily Warren Roebling (1843–1903). Despite a lack of formal engineering training, Emily Roebling’s name will be forever associated with the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge, a key engineering feat of the 1800s. After her father-in-law and original bridge designer John Roebling passed away suddenly following a freak accident, her husband took over as chief engineer. To help him, Emily Roebling studied civil engineering topics. When Washington Roebling then became ill and bedridden, she jumped into the project.
At first she kept records, answered mail, delivered messages, and checked on the construction. But eventually she learned so much about the mathematics and engineering involved that many suspected she was actually serving as chief engineer.
After 11 years of work, Emily Roebling became the first person to ride across the completed bridge by vehicle. In 1953, New York dedicated a ceremonial plaque on the bridge to her memory, reading “Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”
Kate Gleason (1865–1933) began working in her father’s machine shop at age 11, replacing her half-brother who died of typhoid. She helped Gleason Works, in Rochester, New York, until she left for Cornell University’s mechanical engineering and mechanic arts program. She was the first woman in the four-year bachelor of engineering program. But she had to drop out and return to work when her father’s company struggled.
At age 25, Gleason became secretary-treasurer of the reorganized Gleason Tool Co. She reportedly helped her father design a machine to produce beveled gears, which Henry Ford called “the most remarkable machine work ever done by a woman.” She never returned to Cornell but she did later take night classes in mechanical engineering. As she traveled around selling gear machinery, she explained the engineering involved and demonstrated a knowledge of engineering processes. For her breadth of knowledge, she earned the title “Madame Curie of machine tools.”
Leaving her family’s company after 35 years, Gleason took up projects such as “Concrest,” a community she designed in East Rochester, using poured concrete. She would later come up with new designs for affordable housing based on a new pouring method she developed.
Gleason was the first woman elected into the American Concrete Institute and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. When she died at the age of 68, she left an estate worth more than $1.4 million ($24 million today), some of which she bequeathed to the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Kate Gleason College of Engineering there is named in her honor and was reportedly the first engineering school named after a woman.
Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878–1972) has been called “the first lady of engineering” and “the world’s greatest woman engineer” due to her impact on industrial design and pioneering work in the field of time and motion studies. Gilbreth originally studied English and received her master’s degree in the field. But she was persuaded to pursue a doctorate in psychology (prior to the advent of industrial engineering) by husband Frank, who developed time-saving techniques to advance in the construction industry and is considered the father of time-motion studies. He started his own engineering consulting company, Gilbreth Inc., which helped businesses improve efficiency.
The family put their techniques to work with their 12 children (two of them wrote the books Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes, later turned into movies). After her husband’s death, Gilbreth applied their principles to the home and kitchen—for instance, designing an ideal kitchen layout and techniques to help disabled individuals.
Gilbreth became the first female professor in Purdue University’s engineering school and the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. In 1984, after a campaign by NSPE members, the US Postal Service issued a 40-cent stamp commemorating her.
Margaret Ingels (1892–1971). When she was a young child, Ingels observed moisture collecting on glass and began wondering about the principle of condensation. That interest would continue and lead to a career in air conditioning that would help many enjoy the comforts of modern life.
Ingels enrolled at the University of Kentucky with an original interest in architecture, but since there was no degree program there at the time, a dean persuaded her into mechanical engineering. She served as secretary for several engineering groups and was inducted into the honor society. She became the first woman to graduate from the school’s College of Mechanical Engineering and the first woman at the school to earn an engineering degree. (She was the second female engineering graduate in the US.) Later, she would earn the pioneering graduate degree in mechanical engineering.
Her career included jobs at Carrier Engineering Corp. (Willis Carrier was the inventor of modern air conditioning) and also in a US Bureau of Mines laboratory that helped create standards for air cleanliness. She gave speeches and wrote articles on air conditioning, educating the public and helping to spread its use.
Ingels retired from Carrier in 1952 and in 1996 was posthumously inducted into the ASHRAE Hall of Fame.
Information provided with permission from Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers by Anna M. Lewis. Copyright © 2014, Chicago Review Press. For other inspiring stories of early female engineers, see Engineer Girl’s list of Historical Engineers (www.engineergirl.org) and Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers by Sybil E. Hatch, P.E. (ASCE Press).
- The Society of Women Engineers has worked for six decades to demonstrate the value of diversity and help female engineers achieve their full potential. www.swe.org
- STEMspire is a nonprofit organization founded by NSPE member Karen Purcell, P.E., to “help women create meaningful futures in the STEM fields.” Purcell is also the author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. (See Purcell’s articles in June 2012 and March 2013 PE.) www.stemspire.com
- The Global Marathon For, By and About Women in Engineering and Technology s a free, virtual event bringing women in engineering and technology together for discussion on a variety of issues. It is sponsored annually in March by DiscoverE (formerly the National Engineers Week Foundation). www.discovere.org/our-programs/global-marathon
- Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, another DiscoverE program, showcases engineering to girls through events and workshops. www.discovere.org/our-programs/girl-day
- Engineer Girl grew out of work by the National Academy of Engineering and aims to highlight opportunities in engineering for girls and women. www.engineergirl.org
- Aspire is the K–12 outreach website for the Society of Women Engineers. It offers information and resources for girls, parents, and educators. http://aspire.swe.org
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: PORTRAIT OF EMILY WARREN ROEBLING, CA. 1863; PRINCIPALS, INCLUDING LILLIAN MOLLER GILBRETH, AT PURDUE TIME AND MOTION STUDY CONFERENCE; MARGARET INGELS STANDS BEHIND A FORGE PREPARING TO WORK ON METAL; AND KATE GLEASON AT HER HOME IN ROCHESTER, NEW YORK.
PHOTO CREDIT: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES; COURTESY OF PURDUE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES, VIRGINIA KELLY KARNES ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTION; COURTESY OF THE GLEASON FAMILY, FROM THE LIFE AND LETTERS OF KATE GLEASON BY JANIS F. GLEASON (RIT PRESS, 2010); UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY MARGARET INGELS COLLECTION, CIRCA 1845-1967, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS