Clarke, Edith (1883–1959)

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Clarke, Edith (1883–1959)

American engineer. Born on February 10, 1883, in Howard County, Maryland; died on October 29, 1959, in Olney, Maryland; daughter of a lawyer-farmer; A.B. in math and astronomy from Vassar College, 1908; civil engineering courses at the University of Wisconsin, 1911–12; M.S. in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1919).

Edith Clarke's career as an engineer would be marked by many firsts. She was to gain prominence as the first woman elected to the Society of Electrical Engineers, the first woman to earn a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the first woman to address the American institute of Electrical Engineers, and the first woman to teach electrical engineering in an American university. Clarke was born on February 10, 1883, in Maryland where her father was a lawyer and a gentleman farmer. When Edith was seven, her father died, and her mother took charge of the farm until her own death five years later. Edith's uncle was appointed guardian over the orphaned children, the eldest of whom, Mary , reared her siblings. Edith used her share of the inheritance for college tuition at Vassar, a decision that earned her rebukes from some relatives.

Although Clarke wanted to study engineering, Vassar had not opened this field to women in the early 1900s. She studied instead math and physics, graduating in 1908 with an A.B. in math and astronomy. After teaching math and physics for three years, Clarke became seriously ill. "Thinking I was going to die," she would later tell a reporter, "I just decided to do what I really wanted to do—study engineering." A year's training at the University of Wisconsin's School of Engineering was followed by seven years (1912–18) of work for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T). She was accepted to study electrical engineering at MIT from which she would earn her M.S. (1919). During her days at MIT, Clarke became interested in symmetrical components, a complicated mathematical technique invented by Charles Fortescue for quick computing. She developed a convenient version of the technique that made it workable, and the new components, named "Clarke components," streamlined complex equations in the pre-computer age when equations had to be worked out by hand.

Upon graduation from MIT in 1919, Clarke could not find a job better than her old position at AT&T, which involved supervising a group of "girls" in a computing pool. Instead, she traveled to Constantinople where she spent a year teaching engineering as a visiting professor of physics at the Istanbul Woman's College in Turkey (1920). When Clarke returned, she was finally hired as an electrical engineer by General Electric (GE). During a career with GE that would span 23 years, she analyzed power transmission problems that were submitted by power companies from across the United States. Clarke is credited with placing circuit theory on firm mathematical ground during her time at GE. In February 1926, she became the first woman to address the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), speaking at its convention in New York on "Steady-State Stability in Transmission Systems." In 1940, she was among the only three women members of AIEE, an organization that had a membership of 17,000 (Vivien Kellems and Mabel McFerran Rockwell shared this distinction with Clarke). Destined to be called the "foremost woman engineer in history," in 1943 Clarke published what would become the major textbook in her field, Circuit Analysis of AC Power Systems, Symmetrical and Related Components.

Clarke was 62 when she left GE. She then served as a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, where, in addition to teaching, she published and received honors from the AIEE (of which she was elected fellow in 1948) and from the Society of Women Engineers, which awarded her its Achievement Award in 1954. She taught at the University of Texas until 1959, the year of her death in Olney, Maryland, on October 29.