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Edith Clarke – a Pioneering Woman Engineer

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Edith Clarke (1883-1959)

Every electrical engineer who works in the field of alternating current (AC) systems should be familiar with the Clarke Transformation concept. What not so many engineers know is that Clarke is a (pioneering) woman engineer called Edith, who managed to find a place for her talent in one of the biggest masculine industries in the first half of the 20th century.

Throughout her career, Clarke was often the first in her endeavors, whether the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the United States, the first female full voting member of the AIEE (that would become IEEE), or the first full time female professor of electrical engineering in the US. She had substantially contributed to the development of mathematical methods that simplify the design and analysis of AC power systems (equivalent circuits, graphical analysis, etc.).

Life and Career

Clarke was born in Maryland in 1883 and was orphaned at a young age. She studied mathematics and astronomy at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, USA, and received an Bachelor degree in 1908. Then after 3 years as a teacher (in mathematics), in the fall of 1911, she enrolled in the civil engineering program at the University of Wisconsin, but left after a year to become a computing assistant to George A. Campbell at American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), where she could acquire good knowledge about the transmission lines and electrical circuits. 

From MIT to GE

Edith Clarke enrolled in electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1918, to earn an M.S. degree in 1919, and was the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree at the school. She then joined General Electric (GE) in Schenectady in 1920, where she trained and directed a small group of women computers doing calculations of mechanical stresses in turbine rotors. In 1921, she filed a successful patent application on a graphical calculator to be used in solving transmission line problems, and it was published in her first technical paper in the GE Review in 1923.

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