|For Immediate Release ||Ellen Morrissey |
The Nolan/Lehr Group
Genius, Not Gender:
Recognizing the Contributions of Women Engineers
February 1997 marked the 150th anniversary of Thomas Edison's birth, the man whose inventions changed the world. But, what of the women engineers who've changed the world? Though Edison remains a household name all these years later, it's likely that the average American cannot name a single famous woman engineer.
The National Engineers Week Committee intends to change that. As part of its efforts to educate the public about the critical role engineers play in society, the committee a consortium of engineering societies and major corporations is making a special effort to emphasize the role of women in engineering during National Engineers Week.
Women have long played a vital role in engineering, the committee says, overcoming discrimination and harassment to bring some of the most significant advances to this significant field. From bulletproof vests to the fire escape to AZT, women have made and continue to make outstanding engineering contributions.
And the number of contributions by women engineers may soon grow rapidly. Soontobe published findings from the U.S. Department of Education's Center for Educational Statistics show that in 1974, women received 1.6 percent of all bachelor's degrees in engineering. By 1994, that number had increased by nearly 10fold, to 14.8 percent. The number of women receiving master's degrees also jumped dramatically, more than doubling between 1984 and 1994. Doctorate degrees in engineering also leaped, with four times as many women earning degrees in 1994 compared to a decade earlier (Editors, please see page four for more detailed figures).
The committee's effort is part history lesson, part advocacy. It's important to give women their rightful due for the roles they've played in important inventions, including the cotton gin and reaper, say organizers. Historians now generally agree, they point out, that Eli Whitney and Cyrus McCormick both depended on women for the design of their inventions.
Organizers are also committed to continuing the trend of bringing more women to the field of engineering. They note that already there's reason to be optimistic. Besides the progress being made in education, the Society of Women Engineers has grown from a few dozen women who banded together in the early 1950s to more than 15,000 members today, according to Anne Perusek, editor of SWE Magazine. Women engineers also hold an everincreasing number of positions of authority in private industry, government, and education.
Of course, many large challenges remain, including the need to expand recruitment of women engineers, eliminate vestiges of sexism from the workplace, and actively work to expose new generations of girls and young women to the opportunities available in the field of engineering.
There's also a need, the National Engineers Week Committee says, to fill the gaps in the history of engineering to tell the full story of the contributions of women engineers, including:
Ada Byron Lovelace who collaborated with Charles Babbage, the Englishman credited with inventing the forerunner of the modern computer wrote a scientific paper in 1843 that anticipated the development of computer software (including the term "software"), artificial intelligence, and computer music. The U.S. Department of Defense computer language, ADA, is named for her.
Amanda Theodosia Jones invented the vacuum method of food canning, a process that completely changed the entire food processing industry. In a move typical of women inventors of the 19th century, Jones denied the idea came from her inventiveness, but rather from instructions received from her late brother from beyond the grave.
Ellen Swallow Richards pioneered the field of environmental engineering with her groundbreaking research into water contamination. In 1870, she helped conduct the first analysis of Massachussetts' water supply and led the research on two subsequent testings. The work set the standard for the United States and the world. She showed incredible foresight with her insistence that the earth's environment be examined as a whole, rather than in "bits and pieces." She also urged tighter controls over solid waste disposal and air, food, and water purity. Ironically, various men who are now known as the "Father of Modern Sanitation" (Hiram Mills), the first person to study nitrification (Edwin Jordan), and the "Father of Public Health" (William Sedgwick) all owe substantial credit to Richards. As one historian noted, if they were the "fathers...then she was the mother of them all."
At the beginning of the 20th century, Mary Engle Pennington revolutionized food delivery with her invention of an insulated train car cooled with ice beds, allowing for the first time the long distance transportation of perishable food.
After Mary Anderson noticed that streetcar drivers had to open the windows of their cars when it rained, she invented the windshield wiper in 1903. By 1916, they were standard equipment on all American cars.
In the 1920s and 30s, Beulah Louise Henry was known as "the lady Edison" for the many inventions she patented, including a bobbinless lockstitch sewing machine, a doll with bendable arms, a vacuum ice cream freezer, a doll with a radio inside, and a typewriter that made multiple copies without carbon paper. One of the most outstanding features of her career was the way Henry capitalized on her inventions, founding manufacturing companies to produce her creations and making an enormous fortune in the process.
Hedy Lamarr the 1940s actress known for her line "Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid" invented a sophisticated and unique antijamming device for use against Nazi radar. While the U.S. War Department rejected her design, years after her patent had expired Sylvania adapted the design for a device that today speeds satellite communications around the world. Lamarr received neither money, recognition, nor credit.
Grace Murray Hopper, a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, developed the first computer compiler in 1952 and originated the concept that computer programs could be written in English. She once remarked, "No one thought of that earlier because they weren't as lazy as I was." Hopper is also the person who, upon discovering a moth that had jammed the works of an early computer, popularized the term "bug." In 1991, Hopper became the first woman, as an individual, to receive the National Medal of Technology. One of the Navy's newest destroyers the U.S.S. Hopper is named for her.
Stephanie Kwolek's discovery of a polymade solvent in 1966 led to the production of "Kevlar," the crucial component used in canoe hulls, auto bodies, and perhaps most importantly bullet proof vests.
Ruth Handler, best known as the inventor of the Barbie doll, also created the first prosthesis for mastectomy patients.
Dr. Bonnie J. Dunbar, who earned a masters degree in ceramic engineering from the University of Washington, worked at Rockwell International in the late 1970s as a senior research engineer, helping to develop the ceramic tiles that enable the space shuttle to survive reentry. In 1985, she had an opportunity to test those tiles first hand, as an astronaut aboard the shuttle.
The use of semiconductor lasers for communication, CD players, and printers owes much to Elsa Garmire, who made tremendous advances in optical devices and quantum electronics that made the commercial use of lasers feasible. Starting with a physics degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in physics from M.I.T., Garmire went on to discover and explain key features of light scattering and selffocusing, and a host of other phenomena crucial to optical technology. In 1994, she was honored with the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award.
As part of a 1989 flight on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, Dr. Mary L. Cleave was part of a mission team that launched the first planetary probe deployed from a shuttle. She also served as Deputy Project Manager for an ocean color sensor satellite that monitors global marine chlorophyll concentration a critical factor in determining the health of the seas. It launched in 1995.
As the first woman to serve on the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dr. Sheila E. Widnall has already guaranteed her place in history. But serving since 1993 as the Secretary of the Air Force with responsibility for 380,000 active duty personnel, 251,000 members of the Air National Guard, and 184,000 civilians, and overseeing an annual budget of $62 billion is only the latest in her long list of accomplishments. After graduating from M.I.T. in 1964 with her doctorate in science, Widnall went on to become head of that institution's fluid mechanics division, director of the Fluid Dynamics Research Laboratory and an M.I.T. associate provost. Internationally known for her work in the fluid dynamics of aircraft turbulence and spiraling airflows, Widnall received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Academy of Engineering in 1993, and was inducted into the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame in 1996.
EDITORS PLEASE NOTE: The following statistics were taken from the Digest of Educational Statistics, 1996 Edition, published by the U.S. Department of Education, Center for Educational Statistics. For further information, please call the Center for Educational Statistics at (202) 2191659. Women Engineering Students Bachelor's Degree in Engineering: 1974 1.6% (Women made up 796 of 50,286 total engineering students) 1984 12.8% (12,093 women / 94,185 total engineering students) 1994 14.8% (11,628 women / 78,225 total engineering students) Women Engineering Students Master's Degree in Engineering: 1974 2.3% (Women made up 356 of 15,379 total engineering students) 1984 10.4% (2,155 women / 20,655 total engineering students) 1994 15.5% (4,600 women / 29,754 total engineering students) Women Engineering Students Doctorate Degree in Engineering: 1974 1.6% (Women made up 55 of 3,312 total engineering students) 1984 5.5% (165 women / 2,981 total engineering students) 1994 11.1% (664 women / 5,979 total engineering students)