women in engineering: four inspiring figures from history

Women have always contributed to the engineering field but they have not always been recognized for their efforts. We take a look at just some of the role models for female engineers today.

Women have always been present in the engineering field, even if numbers have traditionally been low. Female engineers remain under-represented within the sector, with the Institute of Engineering and Technology reporting that just nine percent of engineers are women.

Throughout history, women have played significant roles in huge projects, from internationally recognized bridges to everyday objects. You may have heard of Ada Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine. Now considered by many to be the world’s first computer programmer, Ms Lovelace was a significant contributor to the world of technology and engineering.

However, there are many other women who deserve just as much attention for what they have done in the engineering field. Here are just a few.

Sarah Guppy

In Georgian and Victorian-era Britain, married women were not allowed to own property - all property had to be in their husbands’ names. This meant that women were unable to own intellectual property, which includes patents.

Thanks to this, men vastly outnumbered women in gaining credit for inventions. However, Sarah Guppy was one woman who found her way around this obstacle. She invented various things, including a candlestick that allowed candles to burn longer and a device to improve caulking in ships and boats. She even won a contract worth £40,000 ($50,000) with the navy for an invention that made clearing ships of barnacles easier.

Her most significant invention, however, resulted in the creation of two of the UK’s most famous bridges - the Clifton Suspension Bridge, over the Avon in Bristol, and the Menai Suspension Bridge, over the Menai Straits in Wales.

Ms Guppy patented a method of making safe piling for bridges. Thomas Telford, the creator of the Menai Suspension Bridge, asked for permission to use her design. She gave it away for free, considering it a public benefit. She did the same thing with her friend Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the UK’s most recognized engineers, when he needed help planning the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

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Emily Roebling

Another female contributor to world-famous bridges was Emily Roebling. She worked on the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the most recognized symbols of New York.

The project was begun by Ms Roebling’s father-in-law, respected engineer John A Roebling. He died during construction of the bridge, however, leaving his son - and Ms Roebling’s husband - Washington Roebling in charge of the project. However, Washington soon developed what is now known as decompression sickness from working in the caissons of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was confined to his bed with the sickness, leaving Emily to take control of construction.


Having studied the use of caissons in bridge-building with her husband soon after they were married, she was able to expand on this by relaying information from Washington to his assistants. She took over most of the chief engineer’s duties and planned the completion of the bridge with her husband.

In honor of her contribution, Ms Roebling was the first person to cross the Brooklyn Bridge after it was officially opened. A plaque can be found today on the bridge dedicated to the memory of Ms Roebling, her husband and her father-in-law.

Mary Anderson

Do you drive a vehicle? If so, you’ll be extremely familiar with the iconic device that US citizen Mary Anderson contributed to the engineering field.

On a trip to New York in 1902, Ms Anderson noticed that a streetcar driver had left his front window open in order to avoid sleet building up on the glass. This was the beginning of the process that saw her invent one of the most important elements of all vehicles: windshield wipers.

In 1903, Ms Anderson applied for a patent, which was granted for 17 years. She developed a basic design that worked well, unlike others that had been created prior to that point.

However, when she tried to sell the rights to her invention, she was told that there would not be any commercial value in it. Just a few years later, the car manufacturing industry took off and Ms Anderson’s wiper design became a standard addition to all vehicles.

In 2011, Ms Anderson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, so she didn’t remain unrecognized forever.

Edith Clarke

Trailblazer Edith Clarke was the first woman to gain an electrical engineering degree from the widely respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), enrolling in 1918.

She was unable to find a job in the field she had studied in so went to work for General Electric (GE), supervising workers in the turbine engineering department. In her spare time, she managed to invent a calculator for investigating the electrical characteristics of long lines for the transmission of electrical energy.

In 1921, when she was still unable to find an engineering job, she left GE and took a position as a physics teacher at the Constantinople Women’s College, Turkey. The next year, however, she was offered an electrical engineering job at GE.

Ms Clarke was the first woman to deliver a paper at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers' (AIEE) annual meeting. She then went on to win awards from the AIEE: Best Regional Paper Prize in 1932 and Best National Paper Prize in 1941. She stayed with GE until 1945, when she retired.
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