6 Women Engineers Who Solved Problems

Anna Johansson

November 15, 2020

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Engineering achievements are highly celebrated, mostly because they're central to our daily lives. Engineers solve problems.

While the field of engineering is typically male-dominated, there are plenty of women who have made some of the coolest engineering advancements.

1. Emily Roebling managed the Brooklyn Bridge project

Emily Roebling didn't set out to be an engineer, but became one by accident. Emily's husband, Washington, had been supervising and managing the building of the Brooklyn Bridge when he suddenly became paralyzed. Emily took on most of his duties and saw the project through to completion.

2. Heddy Lamarr invented a communications system for the military

Although Heddy Lamarr is mostly known as a movie star from the 1930s and 1940s, during World War II she invented a wireless communications system for the United States military.

Heddy developed what is now known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) transmission. This type of transmission repeatedly switches frequencies during transmission to avoid interference, interception, eavesdropping, and jamming. FHSS is the basis of today's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi devices.

3. Stephanie Louise Kwolek invented kevlar

All of our law enforcement personnel and first responders can thank Stephanie Kwolek for their protection.

While working in a DePont lab, Kwolek discovered liquid crystalline polymers that could be turned into fibers stronger than steel. Her discovery earned her the 1966 National Medal of Technology, the 1997 Perkin Medal, and got her inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2003.

Although body armor has become lighter since kevlar was invented, kevlar is still used in today's bullet proof vests, tires, and fiber optic cables. The invention of kevlar also paved the way for improvements. For example, now bullet proof vests can be constructed from lighter materials, and some high-end soft armor can protect nearly as well as hard plate armor. These advancements have been a group effort and are hard to pin to a single individual.

Many engineering advancements aren't attributable to any specific person. For example, the international standard for the dimensions of hydraulic couplers was established based on flat face couplings designed by Stucchi USA.

It's unclear whether the company intentionally helped to establish the international standards. The company may have simply produced a superior product that was recognized as such. That's fairly common in engineering. Someone comes up with a brilliant idea and when others take notice, their design becomes the new standard.

4. Edith Clarke brought electrical engineering to dam building

In the early 1900s, a woman named Edith Clarke brought her knowledge and expertise to both AT&T and General Electric (GE). While working for AT&T, Clarke invented a patented graphical calculator that simplified the calculations related to long electrical lines. She had a brilliant mind and figured out many ways to make the electrical distribution system more efficient.

After just two years of employment with GE as an hourly worker she was moved to a salaried position, which wasn't common in her time. After her time with GE, she spent time working with companies building hydroelectric dams.

5. Nancy D. Fitzroy worked on nuclear reactor cores

Working for General Electric, Dr. Nancy Fitzroy worked on nuclear reactor cores during a time when this type of work was cutting-edge. Previously, she had worked on projects that put the first satellite into orbit.

Fitzroy got her start as an engineer early as a child when she asked her father for a record player. She came home from school one day and her father put a bunch of technical components, including a wiring diagram on the table and told her if she wanted a record player, she had to make it.

6. Beulah Louise Henry

If you grew up in the 1980s, you probably had a Teddy Ruxpin doll. Teddy Ruxpin was a bear that played special cassette tapes and moved his mouth as the tape played. It's quite possible that Beulah Louise Henry created the inspiration for this toy decades prior. She is credited with inventing a doll with a radio inside, which is pretty close to Teddy, given the technology of her time.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Henry invented many cool and useful gadgets including a sewing machine that didn't require a bobbin, a vacuum ice cream freezer, and a typewriter that made copies without using carbon paper.

Brilliant minds deserve recognition

Sometimes it's hard to know who to credit for brilliant advancements. For example, you probably didn't know who invented kevlar until you read this article. If you dig, you'll find even more brilliant women behind top advancements. The brilliant minds showcased in this article are just a small part of that total.

Join us at the WITI December Summit to celebrate these women and you!

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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