The second Tuesday of every October is Ada Lovelace Day, where the world celebrates the achievements of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). According to the Women’s Engineering Society, surveys taken in 2017 have reported that 11% of the engineering workforce are female. Whilst this is an improvement on the 9% previously reported in 2015, the UK shamefully continues to have the lowest number of female engineers in Europe, accounting for under 10% of engineering professionals.
History is full of famous women in STEM who are credited with being pioneers of their respective industries. Here are just a few who have changed the course of history with their groundbreaking achievements:
Tabitha Babbitt - Inventor of the Circular Saw:
Born in 1779, Tabitha Babbitt lived in a Shaker community in Massachusetts. She is credited with inventing the first circular saw - an idea borne from observing how much energy was wasted using a traditional two-man pitsaw. The latter was widely utilised within Tabitha’s community owing to their heavy involvement in forestry, until she came up with the concept that would revolutionise cutting methods right up to the present day.
Tabitha’s prototype of the circular saw consisted of a circular blade mounted to a spinning wheel, operated through the use of a pedal. This led to a larger version being installed within the saw mill, thus resulting in a more efficient cutting process.
Tabitha did not patent the circular saw, so that it could be used by others, although it was
patented two years later by two French men who read about the design in Shaker papers. However, it is widely accepted that Tabitha Babbitt came up with both the concept and the early prototype.
Hedy Lamarr - Hollywood Star and Mother of Wireless Technology:
Hedy Lamarr enjoyed a Hollywood film career that spanned from the late 1930s all the way to the 1950s; however, she didn’t stop there. In her spare time, she busied herself with various projects, including the improvement of traffic stop signs and the attempted creation of a dissolvable tablet that would create a carbonated beverage. It wasn’t until the dawn of World War Two however, that she patented a secret communications system in collaboration with composer George Antheil. This system, designed to guide torpedoes securely, used ‘frequency hopping’ to prevent interception and jamming by Axis powers. It later became the basis for today’s Bluetooth technology after lying forgotten for many years.
In 1997, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for their contributions, before being inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
Alice Perry - Europe’s First Female Engineering Graduate:
Not only was Alice Perry the first female engineering graduate in Ireland, but she was also the first engineering graduate in the whole of Europe. Born in Galway in 1885, engineering
was in Alice’s blood - her father was the County Surveyor for West Galway and her uncle, John Perry, was credited with developing the navigational gyroscope. Needless to say, education was at the top of her academic family’s priorities and after being awarded a scholarship to the Royal University in 1902, Alice changed her studies to engineering before graduating with first class honours in 1906.
Upon the death of her father, Alice Perry became interim country surveyor for Galway West, but was an unsuccessful candidate for the permanent position. Nonetheless, she is still Ireland’s only female county surveyor to this day.
Margaret Hamilton - Development Leader of On-Board Software for NASA’s Apollo Missions:
You may have heard of Margaret Hamilton after she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 - an accolade which is testament to her significant contributions towards the development of on-board software for the NASA Apollo moon missions. She led the team responsible for this crucial task and - in a bid to have the niche taken seriously within the wider field of engineering disciplines - even coined the phrase ‘software engineering’ for the first time.
In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Margaret Hamilton has been decorated with several other prestigious awards, as well as having published over 130 papers. Lego even included a Margaret Hamilton figurine within their ‘Women of NASA’ set, which went on sale in 2017. Personally, I can’t think of any higher honour than that!
Edith Clarke - The World’s First Female Electrical Engineer:
Edith Clarke had a hard start in life, having been orphaned at the age of 12. This didn’t stop her from achieving great things - instead, she used her inheritance to put herself through school, studying both mathematics and astronomy, before teaching mathematics and physics in San Francisco. Following this, Edith studied civil engineering, before leaving to start a career in computing for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company. Far from having turned her back on education, she continued to study electrical engineering at night school - the field for which she would later become famous.
By 1918, Edith Clarke had enrolled at MIT, going on to become the first woman to earn a Master of Science in electrical engineering from the institute. After graduating, she found herself unable to obtain a job as an engineer, but that didn’t deter her. Instead, she invented the Clarke Calculator - a device which was finally patented in 1925 after Edith originally applied for it in 1921. The Clarke Calculator was able to solve complex line equations involving hyperbolic functions much faster than traditional methods, and also enabled Edith to collect information that the US Department of Energy cites as the groundwork for ‘smart grid’ technology.
In 1947, Edith Clarke went on to become the first female professor of electrical engineering in the US, teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. Like Hedy Lamarr before her, Edith was welcomed into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2015.
Stephanie Kwolek - Inventor of Bulletproof Fibres:
There’s no telling how many lives Stephanie Kwolek’s legacy has saved. Attributing her love of science to her father, who died when she was just ten years old, Stephanie invented Kevlar in 1965 - a fibre that is five times stronger than steel. Lightweight and heat resistant, Kevlar proved perfect for an infinite number of applications and is still utilised within many household products and appliances. Most importantly however, Kevlar paved the way for body armour and bulletproof vests, turning practical usage into the difference between life and death.
Having sold the patent for Kevlar, Stephanie failed to profit financially from the products made possible by its existence; however, she was presented with the Chemical Pioneer Award by the American Institute of Chemists, as well as being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In fact, Stephanie Kwolek’s work was so impressive that she even has an award named after her. The Royal Society of Chemistry presents the Stephanie L Kwolek Award every two years, for contributions towards material chemistry.
Ada Lovelace - The World’s First Computer Programmer:
As daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was born into aristocracy. Keen to dissuade her from inheriting her father’s temperament, Ada’s mother - Lady Anne Isabella Millbanke Byron - ensured that her daughter’s curriculum was mathematics and science-centric.
Mentored by Charles Babbage - an inventor who is known as the father of the computer, whom she befriended at the age of 17 - Ada studied advanced mathematics, whilst previewing his ‘difference engine’ and ‘analytical engine’. The latter being a more advanced version of the former, these machines were designed to complete mathematical calculations on behalf of the user. When Ada was asked to use the analytical engine to translate an Italian article for a Swiss journal, she secured her place in history as the world’s first computer programmer. So enthusiastic was Ada that she added in her own notes using the engine, which ended up being three times longer than the original article!
Sadly, Ada’s life was not to be a long one and she died from cancer in 1852 at the age of 36. Whilst her contributions were not widely acknowledged in the years following her death, the dawn of modern computer science brought with it a fresh recognition for her achievements. Commencing in 1981, the Association for Women in Computing began giving the Ada Lovelace Award to those who have displayed ‘outstanding scientific technical achievement’, or ‘extraordinary service to the computing community’. What’s more, the second Tuesday in October is Ada Lovelace Day, which is dedicated to honouring women within the STEM sphere and inspiring the next generation of female engineers, mathematicians and scientists.
Which female engineers have inspired you? Leave us a comment below!