|For Immediate Release ||Lois Anne DeLong |
Mothers of Invention
NEW YORK - Women have slowly made inroads into the engineering profession since the 1970s, now accounting for about 8.5 percent of all employed engineers working today. But, the contributions of women to engineering, and to the advancement of technologies that have improved the quality of our lives, started much earlier.
National Engineers Week, which is celebrated February 21-27, offers a unique opportunity to salute these pioneers who proved that a woman's place is in the plant, the research facility, and the academic institution. Two such women were Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, the author of the computer language COBOL, and the first computer compiler, and Mary Engle Pennington, who spearheaded efforts in safe food storage.
Known as the "Grandmother of the Computer Age," and one of the group that coined the term "bug" to describe computer glitches after discovering a moth lodged inside some computer relays, Grace Murray Hopper joined the Navy as a lieutenant after receiving a bachelor's degree from Vassar, and a master's degree in math and physics, and a doctorate in math, all from Yale University. Assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard, she worked on the first large-scale digital computer, the Mark I. She remained in the Naval Reserve while working for the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (later part of Remington Rand, and then the Sperry Corporation), which was building the first commercial electronic computer.
Hopper retired from the Naval Reserves in 1966, but was recalled to full-time active duty within a year. When she permanently retired in 1986, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the Navy.
Hopper received the 1991 National Medal of Technology from the US Congress, the first individual woman to be so honored. The citation for the award, presented by President George Bush, stated: "For her pioneering accomplishments in the development of computer programming languages that simplified computer technology and opened the door to a significantly larger universe of users." And, last year, she was posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Though a scientist by training, Mary Engle Pennington's work in establishing standards for the refrigeration of food resulted in her being the first female member of the American Society of Refrigerating Engineers (a forerunner of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, & Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc.). After receiving a PhD in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1895, she founded the Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory to provide bacteriological analyses for physicians. A consulting post with the US Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry led to her appointment as chief of the Bureau's new Food Research Laboratory, established in 1908 to implement the first Pure Food and Drug Act passed by Congress two years earlier.
During the 11 years Pennington headed the laboratory, she spearheaded efforts to determine the effects of temperature on milk, eggs, and poultry, and devise better methods for transporting and storing these and other food products. Specific achievements included developing standards for milk inspection, designing special packing cases for eggs which helped reduce breakage, and effective methods for safely freezing and storing fish. Pennington's most famous achievement was the development of standards for refrigerated rail cars that remained in use more than 25 years later.
In later years, Pennington established her own consulting firm where her research efforts ranged from the processing of frozen foods, to the design and construction of refrigerated warehouses and refrigerators for home and commercial use. She was active in a number of professional associations, including the American Chemical Society (ACS), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Institute of Food Technologists. Information on both these women appeared in the November/December 1994 issue of SWE Magazine, published by the Society of Women Engineers, a sponsoring organization of National Engineers Week. To learn more about these and other pioneering women in engineering and technology, contact the Society of Women Engineers at 120 Wall Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10005-3902; 212/509-9577.