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EEI Celebrates Women’s History Month
Each March, EEI celebrates Women’s History Month, which highlights women’s contributions and achievements in the United States. EEI is proud to recognize Edith Clarke, the first woman to be employed professionally as an electrical engineer and an electrical engineering professor in the United States. Clarke was famous among leaders of the electric industry for her pioneering work and her contributions as a woman in what was considered a man’s role. 

Born in 1883 in the rural community of Ellicott City, Maryland, Clarke showed an exceptional aptitude for mathematics as a child. She studied mathematics and astronomy at the Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, graduating with honors in 1908. In 1912, she became a computing assistant to engineer George Campbell at AT&T, where she learned about electrical circuits and the theory of transmission lines. Enthralled by these subjects, she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study electrical engineering. 

In 1919, Clarke became the first woman to earn a Master of Science in her department at MIT. She couldn’t find a job as an engineer, so she worked at General Electric (GE) as a supervisor of “human computers,” people who performed long calculations. 

During this time, she invented (and later patented) the Clarke calculator​, a graph-based calculator that solved line equations involving hyperbolic functions. Clarke's creation would allow electrical engineers to simplify calculations for inductance and capacitance in power transmission lines. The tool also supported Clarke’s work to gather data about the energy grid. 

Despite her accomplishments, Clarke didn’t earn the same salary and was not afforded the same professional status as her male colleagues. She left GE for a year to teach physics at the Constantinople Women’s College in Turkey. 

When she returned, she was hired back at GE as a salaried electrical engineer, becoming the first professional female electrical engineer in the United States. She was the first woman to be accepted as a full voting member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE). After she retired from GE in 1945, she was recognized as an AIEE Fellow, the first woman to receive that honor. 

In 1926, while working at GE, Clarke addressed an AIEE convention about her report titled, “Steady-State Stability in Transmission Systems.” She was the first woman to present at one of the institute’s conventions. Her speech was delivered at a time when the electric industry was rapidly growing, but the increase of mileage of transmission lines and the electrical loads placed on them caused instability issues for the grid. 

Clarke figured out how to use an analyzer to obtain data about power networks, an innovative idea at the time that was the first step to what we now know as “smart grid” technology. Throughout her time with GE, Clarke wrote and published papers dealing with power and transmission that remain some of the industry's biggest insights. 

After she retired from GE, Clarke became the first female electrical engineering professor in the United States at the University of Texas in Austin. She was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Women Engineers and, in 2015, was inducted posthumously to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the Clarke calculator. Clarke died at the age of 76 in 1959. To learn more about Clarke’s life and her impact on the electric industry, visit the Interesting Engineer website.