International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the achievements of women throughout history and to reflect on the progress that has been made towards gender equality.
However, while many women have made significant contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), their stories are often overlooked or forgotten.
Today we wanted like to shine a light on 20 historic female engineers whose groundbreaking work has helped to shape our world, but who are often not given the recognition they deserve. These women have paved the way for future generations of female engineers, and it is time for us to honour their achievements and remember their names.
Emily Roebling (1843-1903)
Emily Roebling was a remarkable engineer and the unsung hero behind the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. After her husband, Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the bridge, fell ill and was unable to continue working on the project, Emily stepped in to take over. She spent the next 11 years overseeing the construction of the bridge, including managing the finances, liaising with the workers and politicians, and even taking engineering courses to expand her knowledge.
Emily’s hard work and determination paid off when the Brooklyn Bridge was finally completed in 1883, becoming a symbol of innovation and progress. Despite her vital role in the project, Emily’s contribution was largely ignored by the media and society, and she remained largely unrecognized until recent years. Her legacy as a pioneering female engineer continues to inspire and empower women in STEM today.
Edith Clarke (1883-1959)
Edith Clarke was a trailblazing electrical engineer and inventor, best known for her invention of the Clarke calculator, a graphical device used to solve electrical engineering problems. Born in 1883 in Maryland, Clarke was the first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1919. She later went on to become the first female professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Clarke’s contributions to the field of electrical engineering were groundbreaking, particularly in the area of power system analysis. In addition to the Clarke calculator, she also developed the graphical analysis method, which allowed engineers to analyze complex electrical networks using diagrams rather than complicated equations. Clarke’s innovative work helped to pave the way for modern electrical engineering, and will continue to inspire and empower those who follow in their footsteps.
Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972)
Lillian Gilbreth was a pioneering industrial engineer and psychologist who is known for her groundbreaking work in the fields of human factors and efficiency in the workplace. Born in 1878 in California, Gilbreth earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Brown University in 1915.
She later became one of the first female professors of engineering at Purdue University. Gilbreth’s most notable contributions to the field of industrial engineering were her studies on motion and time, which helped to improve workplace efficiency and productivity.
She is also credited with inventing several household devices, including the foot pedal trash can and the shelves inside refrigerator doors. Gilbreth was a champion for women’s rights and worked to promote the inclusion of women in engineering and other male-dominated fields. She was the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering and received numerous awards throughout her career, including the Hoover Medal and the National Medal of Science. Gilbreth’s legacy as a pioneering female engineer and advocate for women in STEM is a source of inspiration and empowerment that will continue to fuel progress and change in the world.
Martha Coston (1826-1904)
Martha Coston was an inventor and entrepreneur who is best known for her invention of the Coston flare, a signaling device used by the United States Navy. Born in 1826 in Maryland, Coston was widowed at a young age and left to support herself and her children. In 1859, she discovered a notebook that her late husband had left behind, containing sketches and notes for a signaling system using different colored flares. Coston took up the challenge of completing her husband’s work, and spent the next 10 years refining the design and securing a patent for the Coston flare.
Her invention was quickly adopted by the US Navy and played a vital role in naval operations during the Civil War and beyond. Coston went on to build a successful business around her invention, and she was the first woman to receive a contract from the US government. Despite facing significant challenges as a female inventor in a male-dominated field, Coston persevered and her legacy as an innovative engineer continues to inspire women in STEM today.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
Hedy Lamarr was a Hollywood actress and inventor who made significant contributions to the field of wireless communication. Born in Austria in 1914, Lamarr became famous in the 1930s and 1940s for her acting roles in films such as “Algiers” and “Samson and Delilah.” However, Lamarr was also an accomplished inventor and held several patents related to wireless communication. During World War II, Lamarr co-invented a frequency hopping spread spectrum system, which was designed to prevent radio-controlled torpedoes from being jammed by enemy signals.
Although the technology was not immediately implemented, it later served as a basis for modern Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS technologies. Despite her groundbreaking work, Lamarr’s contributions to science and engineering were largely overlooked during her lifetime. It was only in the later years of her life that Lamarr began to receive recognition for her achievements, and she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014. Lamarr’s legacy as a pioneering female inventor and advocate for women in STEM has left an enduring legacy of inspiration and empowerment that will continue to shape the world for years to come.
Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau (1867-1941)
Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau was a pioneering American chemical engineer, celebrated for her design of the first commercial penicillin production plant. Born on 27 October 1910 in Houston, Texas, Rousseau was the daughter of a clothing store owner. She achieved her Bachelor of Science degree from Rice Institute in 1932 and later earned her Doctor of Science degree in chemical engineering from MIT in 1937, becoming the first woman in the USA to receive a doctorate in the subject. Her doctoral thesis focused on “The effect of solute on the liquid film resistance in gas absorption.”
In the professional realm, Rousseau began her career with E. B. Badger in Boston. During World War II, she played a pivotal role in overseeing the design of production plants for penicillin and synthetic rubber. Her innovative approach to the deep-tank fermentation of penicillium mold revolutionized the large-scale production of penicillin. Additionally, Rousseau contributed to the development of high-octane gasoline for aviation fuel and later worked on refining distillation column design and plants for the production of ethylene glycol and glacial acetic acid. During the construction of an ethylene glycol plant in Texas, a worker questioned her authority, only to be informed by the foreman that Rousseau was the mastermind behind the plant’s design.
After a distinguished career, Rousseau retired in 1961 and later became an overseer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In recognition of her groundbreaking contributions, Rousseau received numerous accolades. In 1945, she became the first woman to be accepted as a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. A decade later, in 1955, she was honored with the Achievement Award of the Society of Women Engineers. In 1983, she was bestowed with the prestigious Founders Award of the AIChE, marking her as the first female recipient of the award.
Mary Walton (1846-1912)
Mary Walton was an inventor and environmental activist who made significant contributions to the field of noise reduction. Born in 1846 in New York City, Walton was concerned about the negative effects of noise pollution on public health and well-being. In 1881, she invented a system to reduce the noise pollution from elevated trains in New York City. Her invention, which involved suspending the tracks on rubber blocks and enclosing the wheels in sound-absorbing boxes, greatly reduced the noise levels and improved the quality of life for residents living near the tracks.
Walton’s invention was later adopted by other cities around the world, and helped to pave the way for modern noise reduction technologies. Despite her groundbreaking work, Walton’s contributions to science and engineering were largely overlooked during her lifetime. However, her legacy as a pioneering female inventor and environmentalist has blazed a trail of inspiration and empowerment for future generations to follow.
Beatrice Hicks (1919-1979)
Beatrice Hicks was a trailblazing engineer who made significant contributions to the fields of acoustics and industrial safety. Born in 1919 in California, Hicks was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. She went on to become the first female engineer hired by the Western Electric Company, where she worked on the development of sonar systems during World War II.
Hicks later founded the Society of Women Engineers, an organization dedicated to promoting the inclusion of women in engineering and other male-dominated fields. Her most notable contributions to the field of engineering were in the area of industrial safety, where she developed new technologies to detect and prevent accidents in the workplace. Hicks was also a pioneer in the field of acoustics, and her work helped to improve the design and efficiency of sound systems in large buildings and public spaces.
Despite facing significant barriers as a female engineer in a male-dominated field, Hicks persevered and her legacy as a pioneering female engineer and advocate for women in STEM continues to serve as a role model, inspiring and empowering future generations to reach for the stars.
Elsie Eaves (1898-1983)
Elsie Eaves was a pioneering structural engineer who made significant contributions to the design and construction of large dams and other major infrastructure projects. Born in 1898 in Texas, Eaves graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in civil engineering in 1926.
She later became one of the first female engineers to work on the design of the Hoover Dam, which remains one of the largest and most impressive engineering projects in history. Eaves was also instrumental in the design and construction of other major dams, including the Parker Dam and the All-American Canal. Her work helped to improve the safety and efficiency of these structures, and paved the way for modern dam design and construction techniques. Eaves was a champion for women’s rights and worked to promote the inclusion of women in engineering and other male-dominated fields.
She was the first woman to be elected to the American Society of Civil Engineers, and she served as president of the Society of Women Engineers. Eaves’ legacy as a pioneering female engineer and advocate for women in STEM serves as a powerful reminder of what can be accomplished, inspiring and empowering the next generation to do even more.
Kate Gleason (1865-1933)
Kate Gleason was a pioneering mechanical engineer who made significant contributions to the fields of manufacturing and industrial design. Born in 1865 in New York, Gleason grew up in a family of engineers and entrepreneurs.
She later attended Cornell University, where she earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1888, becoming the first woman to do so. After graduation, Gleason worked in her father’s machine tool manufacturing company, where she quickly rose through the ranks to become the company’s president. She was known for her innovative designs and manufacturing techniques, which helped to improve the efficiency and productivity of the company’s operations. Gleason’s most notable contribution to the field of engineering was her invention of a machine that could produce bevel gears, a type of gear used in machinery that was previously difficult to manufacture. Her invention revolutionized the industry and helped to pave the way for modern manufacturing techniques.
Gleason was also a pioneer for women’s rights and worked to promote the inclusion of women in engineering and other male-dominated fields. She was the first woman elected to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and she served as president of the Society of Women Engineers. Gleason’s legacy as a pioneering female engineer and advocate for women in STEM will continue to inspire and empower future leaders in the field.
Mae Jemison (born 1956)
Mae Jemison is an accomplished engineer, physician, and astronaut who has made significant contributions to the fields of science and space exploration. Born in Alabama in 1956, Jemison earned a degree in chemical engineering from Stanford University in 1977, and went on to earn a medical degree from Cornell University in 1981. She worked as a general practitioner and later as a medical officer with the Peace Corps, before being selected by NASA to become the first African American woman to travel into space.
Jemison flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992, and conducted experiments in materials science, life sciences, and human adaptation to space.
After leaving NASA, Jemison founded the Jemison Group, a technology consulting firm that focuses on social and environmental issues. She is also an advocate for science education and diversity in STEM fields, and has written several books on these topics. Jemison’s legacy as a pioneering female engineer and astronaut serves as an enduring inspiration and source of empowerment for the next generation.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace was a visionary mathematician and computer pioneer who is often regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Born in 1815 in London, Lovelace was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and mathematician Annabella Milbanke.
Lovelace had a passion for mathematics and science from a young age, and was mentored by mathematician Charles Babbage, who was working on a prototype for an early mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine. Lovelace’s most notable contribution to computer science was her work on the Analytical Engine, in which she developed an algorithm that could be used to compute Bernoulli numbers.
Her work on the Analytical Engine is considered to be the first example of a computer program, and her visionary ideas about the potential of computers to create and manipulate complex symbols helped to pave the way for modern computer programming. Despite facing significant obstacles as a woman in a male-dominated field, Lovelace’s legacy as a pioneering female mathematician and computer scientist has set a high standard of inspiration and empowerment, challenging future generations to surpass it.
Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014)
Stephanie Kwolek was a pioneering chemist and inventor who is best known for her invention of Kevlar, a strong and lightweight synthetic fiber used in a variety of applications, including body armor, tires, and sporting equipment. Born in 1923 in Pennsylvania, Kwolek earned a degree in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University in 1946, and went on to work as a chemist for the DuPont Corporation. Her work on polymers led to the development of Kevlar in 1965, which was initially intended for use in tires but later became widely used in body armor for law enforcement and military personnel.
Kwolek’s invention revolutionized the field of materials science and had a significant impact on public safety and security. She received numerous awards and honors for her work, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1996. Kwolek was a pioneer for women in STEM and served as a mentor to many young scientists and engineers throughout her career.
Her legacy as a pioneering female chemist and inventor will continue to inspire and empower those who seek to make a difference in the world.
Maria Telkes (1900-1995)
Maria Telkes was a pioneering engineer and inventor who made significant contributions to the fields of solar energy and energy storage. Born in Hungary in 1900, Telkes earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Budapest in 1924, and later moved to the United States to continue her work in renewable energy.
Telkes is best known for her invention of the first solar-powered heating system, which used solar energy to heat water for homes and other buildings. She also developed several energy storage technologies, including a thermal storage system that used phase-change materials to store and release heat energy. Telkes’ innovative work helped to pave the way for modern solar energy and energy storage technologies, and she received numerous awards and honors throughout her career, including the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award and the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award.
Telkes was a trailblazer for women in STEM and worked tirelessly to promote the inclusion of women in engineering and other male-dominated fields. Her legacy as a pioneering female engineer and advocate for renewable energy continues to inspire and empower women in STEM today.
Alice H. Parker (1895-1920s)
Alice H. Parker was a pioneering inventor who made significant contributions to the field of heating technology. Born in 1895 in New Jersey, Parker was interested in finding a more efficient way to heat homes and other buildings. In 1919, she patented a gas-powered central heating system that used a series of pipes and radiators to distribute heat throughout a building. Parker’s invention was a significant improvement over existing heating systems, which were often inefficient and expensive.
However, due to the racial and gender prejudices of the time, Parker struggled to find support for her invention, and her work went largely unnoticed for many years. It wasn’t until many years later that Parker’s contributions to heating technology were recognized, and she is now considered to be a pioneering female inventor who helped to pave the way for modern heating systems. Parker’s legacy as a trailblazing female inventor and advocate for renewable energy has paved the way for future generations to be inspired and empowered to pursue their dreams.
Yvonne Brill (1924-2013)
Yvonne Brill was a pioneering rocket scientist who made significant contributions to the field of propulsion technology. Born in Canada in 1924, Brill earned a degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Manitoba in 1945.
She later moved to the United States and began working as a propulsion engineer for NASA and other aerospace companies. Brill’s most notable contribution to the field of rocket science was her invention of a new type of rocket engine that used hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide as propellants. Her invention greatly improved the efficiency and reliability of rocket engines, and was used in a wide range of applications, including communication satellites and deep space probes.
Brill was also a trailblazer for women in STEM and worked tirelessly to promote the inclusion of women in engineering and other male-dominated fields. She received numerous awards and honors for her work, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011. Brill’s legacy as a pioneering female rocket scientist and advocate for women in STEM remains a source of inspiration and empowerment for generations to come.
Mary Jackson (1921-2005)
Mary Jackson was a pioneering mathematician and aerospace engineer who made significant contributions to the fields of aeronautics and science education. Born in Virginia in 1921, Jackson earned a degree in mathematics and physical science from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1942, and went on to work as a teacher and researcher for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA.
Jackson’s most notable contribution to the field of aerospace engineering was her work on the Supersonic Transport program, where she helped to design and test high-speed aircraft. She also worked to promote the inclusion of women and minorities in STEM fields, and was a mentor to many young scientists and engineers throughout her career. Jackson’s legacy as a pioneering female mathematician and aerospace engineer continues to inspire and empower women and minorities in STEM today. Her life and achievements were depicted in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” which brought her groundbreaking work to a wider audience.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
Grace Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist and naval officer who made significant contributions to the fields of computer programming and software development. Born in New York City in 1906, Hopper earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in 1934, and later joined the United States Navy Reserve as a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program during World War II. Hopper was instrumental in the development of the first computer programming language, known as COBOL, and her work helped to establish many of the basic principles of modern computer programming.
She also served as a mentor and role model for many young scientists and engineers, and was a strong advocate for women’s rights and the inclusion of women in STEM fields. Hopper received numerous awards and honors for her work, including the National Medal of Technology in 1991. Her legacy as a pioneering female computer scientist and advocate for women in STEM continues to inspire and empower future generations.
Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994)
Wilma Rudolph was a pioneering track and field athlete and civil rights advocate who overcame significant obstacles to become one of the most successful athletes of her time. Born in Tennessee in 1940, Rudolph was the 20th of 22 children, and she suffered from polio as a child, which left her with a weakened left leg. Despite this, Rudolph began running as a teenager, and quickly established herself as a gifted athlete.
She went on to compete in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games, where she won a total of three gold medals and became a symbol of strength, perseverance, and excellence.
Rudolph was also a passionate advocate for civil rights and worked to promote equality and social justice throughout her life. She served as a goodwill ambassador for the United States, and was a mentor and role model for many young athletes and activists. Rudolph’s legacy as a pioneering female athlete and civil rights advocate continues to inspire and empower people around the world today.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Rosalind Franklin was a pioneering chemist and crystallographer who made significant contributions to the fields of molecular biology and genetics. Born in London in 1920, Franklin earned a degree in chemistry from the University of Cambridge in 1941, and later went on to earn a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Cambridge in 1945. Franklin’s most notable contribution to science was her work on X-ray crystallography, which she used to study the structure of DNA and other biological molecules.
Her groundbreaking work helped to establish the basic principles of modern molecular biology and genetics, and laid the foundation for many of the medical and scientific advancements of the 20th century. Despite facing significant barriers as a woman in a male-dominated field, Franklin’s legacy as a pioneering female chemist and crystallographer continues to inspire and empower women in STEM today.
Her work was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and she is considered to be one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.
While we have only highlighted 20 historic female engineers, it is important to acknowledge that thousands of women have contributed to the field of engineering throughout history.
Despite their significant contributions, many of their stories have been overlooked or forgotten. If we have missed any important female engineers in our list, we encourage you to get in touch with us and share their stories.
It is crucial to recognize the achievements of women in STEM fields, and by working together, we can ensure that their legacies are not lost to history