February 2003

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Your Engineering Heritage

Powering the Electrical Revolution: Women and Technology

by Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D.

March is Women’s History Month. In next month’s Hall of Fame column, we will feature a very interesting personality; be sure to check back! It’s not too soon to kick off Women’s History Month, however. This month marks the birth of Edith Clarke (10 February), the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree from MIT (in 1919) and the first woman to be named a Fellow of an  IEEE predecessor, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (in 1948).

Did You Know?
Ada Lovelace was the daughter of British poet, Lord Byron, and she worked with Charles Babbage on his first calculating machine. The standard programming language adopted by the Department of Defense in the 1970's is named Ada, in her honor. Sometimes it is shown as ADA, but it is no acronym.

A quick review of engineering and technology history might lead one to believe that, Edith Clarke and next month’s mystery guest excepted, technology is the dominion of men. After all, even the name Edith Clarke does not resonate like those of such men as Faraday or Edison — who are known by one name only. Historically, women have had limited access to education, especially in science and engineering. For example, women were long excluded from engineering schools, and although many men of the era didn’t go to engineering school either, women didn’t have the other route of learning the ropes open to them — on the job. Added to the lack of or limited access to schools and the workplace was the general assumption that women had no mechanical abilities, or even interest in technical fields. Despite the odds against them, women have found ways of making their presence in these fields known. In their roles as workers, consumers and housewives — and later as scientists and engineers — women have always helped shape the direction in which technology has moved.

But where can one turn to learn something of this story? It just so happens that this month is also the first anniversary of the IEEE Virtual Museum. It is our privilege to draw your attention to one of our newest exhibits: “Powering the Electrical Revolution: Women and Technology.” This exhibit explores the role of women in the growth of our modern, technologically based society during the late 19th and the 20th centuries — the Electric Century, if you will. Using still images, video clips and animations, the exhibit covers several incidents from the various eras of electrical history, including:

  • The impact of women operators in the growth of telegraphy
  • The role of housewives on the spread of electrification and the place of women workers in early electrical factories
  • The influence of women mathematicians (beginning with Ada Lovelace in the early 19th century) on the rise of modern computing. Did you know that before the invention of electronic computers, computer was a job description and most computers during World War II were women?
  • The emergence of women engineers in the second half of the 20th century

We hope you will visit this and other exhibits currently on display on the IEEE Virtual Museum at



Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is director of the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center's Web page at:



© Copyright 2003, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.