July 29th, 2019
by Barbara Hogg
When we think about famous female engineers, we think about many women in science who changed the world as we know it. They were part of the revolution that also altered society’s perception of what women could or could not do. These ladies made a huge difference for every one of us, so let’s learn more about them and their achievements!
As recently as the past century, society believed that women could not understand machinery at any capacity. Well, the society said a lot of things about women in medicine as well, but just as our famous female doctors proved, many do not know what they are talking about.
The female inventors we are going to present you with today fought their entire careers to prove the world wrong and boy, are we glad they did!
They stood up for what they believed in and used their success to further others’. They lived extraordinary lives, each with her own captivating story to tell.
While most of these famous female scientists and women inventors worked in the 19th and 20th centuries, you will find here a few modern faces as well, because the struggle goes on.
1. Margaret E. Knight
- The invention of the flat-bottomed paper bag
- Improvements to the rotary engine
Margaret E. Knight is the first name on our list of famous female engineers and for all the right reasons. She was a famous female inventor in the 1800s, amassing over 26 patents in her lifetime and establishing the Eastern Paper Bag company.
While working in a cotton mill, she witnessed a horrible accident: a shuttle broke loose and impaled a co-worker. It was a common issue with mills, and within a few weeks, Knight had devised a way to prevent this from happening again.
Despite not ever receiving a patent, the invention was so successful that other mills in the area adopted the practice. Margaret never saw a profit from her achievement but did save countless workers’ lives, many of them children.
In her late twenties, Knight relocated from New Hampshire to Massachusetts and worked for a paper bag company. Within a year, she identified how to improve the paper bag and invented the machine to do it.
- Knight created the first flat bottomed paper bag that we still use today and made a machine to fold and glue the base. It may not seem like a big deal now, but in the 1800s, it was huge! Everyone used paper bags, and her machine not only made the production more manageable but also considerably faster.
Margaret had made a wooden prototype within six months and then moved on to designing an iron model of the machine. To do this, she consulted with a local machinist and then moved to Boston to collaborate with two others in the field.
While working in Boston, she met with a man called Charles Anan, who admired the ingenuity of her prototype. When Knight completed the project, she applied for a patent and discovered that Charles Anan had already received a patent for the same machine.
Knight filed a patent inference lawsuit, which she rightfully won, and she went on to create the Eastern Paper Bag Company with a business partner.
She faced plenty of prejudice from many people due to her being a female inventor and engineer. No one believed that a woman could understand machines, let alone invent them.
This was Charles Anan’s court defense as to why he was the rightful owner of the patent. The prejudice lasted her whole life, and she often encountered problems with disrespectful employees doubting her abilities.
Margaret never let this hold her back but dedicated her entire life to inventing a wide range of different machines that made an impact on the way that many industries operate today.
A New York Times article about famous female engineers and inventors from 1913 praised her a lot. At the time she was in her seventies and tirelessly working on improvements to rotary engines. That’s dedication! She has rightfully received acclaim as one of the most prominent inventors of all times.
2. Ada Lovelace
- First to recognize the potential of the Analytical Engine as a computer-like device
Ada Lovelace was a 19th-century mathematician who we now know as the first computer programmer. That’s right! A computer programmer in the 1800s, over 100 years before the computer as we know it had even been invented!
- Lovelace is not credited with any inventions but was a forward-thinking genius worthy of the fame she received.
As we all know, she was Lord Byron’s only legitimate child. The renowned poet deserted her and her mother when Ada was just five weeks old. Bitter and resentful, her mother pushed Ada to pursue mathematics and logic to keep her away from poetry or artistic interests.
This, coupled with severe illnesses in early childhood, which left her paralyzed or bedridden for years, is considered to have shaped her fascination for mathematics and science.
- As a child, Ada dreamed of flying and decided to investigate how this would be possible by studying bird wing anatomy. She even hypothesized the use of steam propulsion.
When Lovelace was a young lady, she met Charles Babbage, a mathematician, and mechanical engineer. Babbage was working on the Analytical Engine, the first mechanical computer. Ada became obsessed with the device and would investigate the machine, working with Babbage as much as she could.
The Analytical Engine gained attention, and in 1840, Babbage gave a presentation at the University of Turin. Lovelace was tasked with the English translation of the papers and decided to include her notes and her theories to its use.
- Until this point, the engine had only been considered for mathematic and analytical purposes. Lovelace saw beyond.
There is some debate to how much Lovelace was responsible for the machine’s true capabilities, as some argued that Babbage had created programs to use the Analytical Engine in a similar way years before Lovelace partnered with him.
Others believe that she was only responsible for furthering the publicity of the machine and contributed nothing to its development. However, most think that Babbage was unable to see the true potential of his work, and the true visionary was Lovelace herself.
3. Ellen Ochoa
- First Hispanic female to travel to space
- Three patents in optical equipment
Dr. Ellen Ochoa is an American astronaut who was the first Hispanic female to reach space. She has an impressive career within NASA and is today one of the most famous female engineers in our contemporary world.
She started as a research engineer in 1988, before climbing the ranks to hold prestigious positions, such as director of flight crew operations, deputy center director and even Director of the Johnson Space Centre.
- In 1990, she was selected to become an astronaut, going on to serve in 4 space missions, and clocking in at almost 1000 hours in space.
- She even operated a robotic arm to transfer supplies and equipment from the shuttle to the International Space Station.
She is also a gifted inventor, co-developing three patents on optical equipment, which get better quality images and more precise information from further into space than were previously able.
We are very proud to be contemporaries with one of the most famous female engineers in the world and a, most of all, with a woman that made critical contributions to space understanding and explorations.
Her contributions to the NASA missions and advancement of space technology has led to her receiving many awards, including NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal.
- She has had six schools named after her, and she received even the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award from the federal government for senior executives.
Ochoa strives to advance the science around the world for the benefit of all of humankind. A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she serves on several boards, including chairing the Nomination Evaluation Committee for the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Despite having all of this under her belt, Ochoa somehow found time to learn to fly planes, play the classical flute, and raise two sons with her husband, Coe Milles.
4. Hedy Lamarr
- Frequency hopping invention
- Improvements to plane aerodynamics
Hedy Lamarr made history with her femme fatale persona on the big screen, working with stars like Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. But, along with being a starlet, she was also a thriving female inventor.
- She devised a method of encrypting signals to prevent enemy spies listening to sensitive information, the underlying method of how we use Wi-Fi today.
- Without Hedy Lamarr, there would be no wireless communication in our modern world.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914 Austria, she was an intelligent child who was encouraged by her father to question the world and how things worked.
In 1933, she married Friedrich Fritz Mandl, a munitions manufacturer who only wanted Lamarr as arm candy, the perfect wife who should be seen and not heard.
He was an incredibly jealous man who prevented her from pursuing any career. He forbade her to act, and he tried (unsuccessfully) to have some of her work removed from existence.
How did a movie diva become one of the most famous female engineers of all times?
Well, Hedy would often be present at Mandl’s business meetings with other scientists and used this time to absorb knowledge on military technology. The toxic relationship between Lamarr and her husband didn’t last long; she eventually escaped from their castle home and fled to London.
Once considered “world’s most beautiful woman,” Hedy had to fight against her fame because no one took her seriously in the scientific community.
During World War II, Lamarr did not enjoy being in Hollywood during such tremendous human devastation. Together with her friend George Antheil she teamed up to see what they could do.
- They found that a common issue in military defense was the enemy hijacking their torpedoes; this meant that the enemy could reroute or disable their security.
- Lamar and Antheil invented a way for the command signal to jump around on different radio frequencies, preventing anyone from being able to follow and control it.
- It also served as a mean of a secret communication method that it was hard to spy. They patented their invention, but the Navy did not use her work at the time.
Although dismissed for a while, we use wireless communications in industries delivering our G.P.S., Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
Unfortunately, neither Lamar nor Antheil ever saw a penny from the use of their technology, as the patent had expired by the time of its implementation.
5. Katharine Burr Blodgett
- The first woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University
- Advanced glass lens technology, revolutionizing everything from glasses to telescopes and cameras
Katharine Burr Blodgett was a famous female inventor in the field of molecular engineering, working with monomolecular coatings. It led to improvements in everything from eyeglasses to the camera on your phone.
Blodgett was born in 1898, the daughter of a famous patent attorney for General Electric, who was tragically killed in a burglary while she was a child. After some time living with her mother in France, she returned to New York and attended Rayson School, receiving a higher quality of education than others of the time.
She showed a gift for physics and mathematics, going on to earn her Bachelor’s degree at Bryn Mawr College and a masters degree from the University of Chicago. She then became the first woman in history to receive a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University.
Blodgett worked at the General Electric research lab with Irving Langmuir, a former co-worker of her father. Together they developed films that were only a few molecules thick and outlined their potential uses.
- After applying several films of barium to the glass, she dramatically reduced the amount of light that would reflect from it.
- Blodgett later applied this to eyeglasses, creating nonreflective lenses and also improving the lenses used for cinematography.
When it comes to famous female engineers and some of the most revered women inventors in the world, Blodgett’s name will still shine bright for generations.
During the war-torn times of the early 20th century, Blodgett helped advance military technology, using her research in the monomolecular coating to aid in the war effort – helping create more effective smokescreens to allow soldiers to cover better their advance or retreat.
In 1963, Blodgett retired from General Electric, but we still use her finding today. Blodgett’s research had a massive impact on the modern world, leading to the development of hydrophobic coatings for almost any item imaginable:
- non-scratch camera lenses and glasses,
- better telescope lenses,
- non-reflective store windows,
- and weather balloon technology, to name a few.
So, next time you use your telescope for beginners to see those Saturn rings or pick your astronomy binoculars to gaze at the Moon, give thanks to Katharine Blodgett.
6. Edith Clarke
- First female engineer
- Created the Clarke calculator for graphing electrical properties
Edith Clarke has quite a few “first female” badges to wear honorably, but we have to mention, among her already impressive collection of accomplishments, that she also invented the Clarke calculator, used to graph out electrical properties.
Edith was born in 1883 and became orphan at a young age. She used her inheritance to attend college and study mathematics and astronomy.
After college, she had a few teaching jobs before going to the University of Wisconsin to be a civil engineer. After some time, she dropped out to work at AT&T and collaborate with George Campbell studying long-distance electrical transmission.
While working at AT&T, she studied to get her electrical engineering degree. Edith later enrolled with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and within a year she was the first female to graduate with a master’s in electrical engineering from MIT.
- After graduation, she created the Clarke calculator, a device that deals with mathematical problems relating to electricity.
People solved these calculations manually, so her invention saved a lot of time and effort.
Clarke found it hard to earn a job as an engineer due to her being female. She had tried to become an engineer at General Electric, where she worked as a computer supervisor, but they would not allow it.
She eventually left General Electric and took a teaching position elsewhere. The following year, General Electric hired her back, making her their first female engineer.
Her accomplishments don’t just stop here. The American Institute of Electrical Engineers awarded her the Best Regional Paper Prize and the Best National Paper Prize.
At the age of 64, she still wasn’t done smashing those records. When she accepted a teaching position at UT Austin, it also made her the first female professor of electrical engineering in America.
7. Marissa Mayer
- First female engineer to join Google
- First female CEO of a Fortune 500 company
Next on our list of famous female engineers and notable women in science and engineering is a name that needs little presentation. However, Marissa Mayer’s story and evolution certainly deserve our praise.
Marissa Mayer is an American software engineer who was the first female engineer to join Google and went on the be the CEO of Yahoo. She has been an integral part of the design and management of both companies.
She was in Fortune’s 40 Under 40 and ranked among their most powerful businesswomen in the world. Mayer is now one of the most famous women in science and engineering in our contemporary world.
In her youth, she excelled in maths and science, while also keeping a hectic schedule with a near endless list of extracurriculars and a part-time job at her local grocery store.
Mayer attended Stanford University and got the Bachelors in symbolic systems and the Masters in computer science. Her specialty was artificial intelligence.
- She has several patents in this area, as well as in interface design.
After graduation, Mayer had several job offers and declined high paying positions to join the team at Google. She was their 20th member and the first female engineer to join the group.
Soon enough, she became climbing the ranks, becoming the production manager, director of consumer products and vice president of Google search products.
Mayer was involved in almost all Google flagship programs and applications over the years.
- Her contributions include the design of the Google homepage, Gmail, Chrome, Google Earth, all of them while she was one of the only three members to develop Google Adwords.
Mayer was offered the position of CEO of Yahoo in 2012, which she accepted. During her time at Yahoo, she became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Fortune ranked her 6th on their 40 Under 40 list and the 16th most powerful businesswoman in the world.
Yahoo board members believed that appointing Mayer CEO would revive the declining business. Unfortunately, her efforts did not save the company, and when Verizon bought it in 2007, Mayer resigned from her post.
After leaving Yahoo, Marissa teamed up with a former colleague and founded Lumi Labs, an incubator for artificial intelligence. She is also a board member in various organizations, from the National Design Museum to the New York Ballet.
8. Emily Warren Roebling
- The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
Emily Warren Roebling is famous for her part in building the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the most famous female engineers of her times – although she never held such degree – Emily’s story is as inspirational today as it was then.
- She was an honorary engineer, receiving no formal education, but that didn’t stop her from leaving her mark.
As children, she and her brother strived for the best education that they could get. Her brother went on to become the commanding officer of the V. Corps, while she met her husband, Washington Roebling, at a soldier’s ball.
Washington was the son of John Roebling, the engineer responsible for designing the Brooklyn Bridge. She had become a regular at the construction site, where she accompanied her husband, and while honeymooning, they both studied underwater construction practices in Europe. Her husband took over as chief engineer when his father suddenly passed.
Shortly after Washington was appointed chief engineer, he fell ill and became bedridden.
Emily cared from him at home and relayed information between him and his workers. During this time, Emily dedicated herself to the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge.
- She excelled so well at managing the day to day operations and site development that most people assumed she was the next chief.
In 1882, she appeared before the engineers and politicians’ panel to advocate for her husband to remain in charge, which they granted.
- Construction ended the following year, and she traveled the first journey across the bridge in a carriage, holding a rooster as a victory sign.
She received praise for her efforts and dedication in Abram S. Hewitt’s speech.
- After the completion of the project, Emily dedicated her time to support many women’s causes, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Committee on Statistics of the New Jersey Board of Lady Managers.
- She published an essay titled “A Wife’s Disabilities,” which advocated for women’s rights.
The Brooklyn Bridge recently celebrated its 135th birthday and with it, Emily Roebling’s contributions. The street where she lived with her husband while working on the Brooklyn Bridge received her name as an honor.
Her obituary appeared in NY Times “overlooked” articles, which is rewriting the obituaries of brilliant people who went unnoticed in their times.
9. Patricia Bath
- First African American doctor to receive a medical patent
- Developed cutting edge technology in the treatment and removal of cataracts
Patricia Bath is another trailblazer on our list of famous female engineers. An African American inventor in the medical field of ophthalmology, she was the first woman to achieve many things, from the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology to the first African American doctor to receive a medical patent.
- One of the most famous female doctors and female African American inventors, she reshaped the treatment of cataracts by developing many patents to improve their treatment and removal.
Bath stood out as a bright and intelligent teenager and earned herself a spot in a cancer workshop held by the National Science Foundation.
While studying there, she received credit in a paper published by the head researcher. Her efforts were acknowledged by the Mademoiselle magazine, earning her a Merit Award – she was only 16 at the time!
After high school, Bath went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in 1964. While attending university, she established the Students National Medical Association with another student and became the association’s first female president.
She attended medical school, interning at Harlem Hospital, where she pioneered an eye care team by convincing doctors to operate pro-bono on the project.
- She was a member of the group performing Harlem Hospital’s first eye surgery in 1969.
Next, she took a residency at NYU, making her the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. Bath also became NYU’s first female ever to lead an ophthalmology post-graduate program.
Upon completing her education, Bath received a position at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. When she accepted, she became their first female member.
She became the assistant chief of their ophthalmology residency program and made it to the chief position within ten years.
- During this time, she was the first African American woman surgeon, established the Ophthalmic Assistant Training Program, co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, and became the first female in America to lead an ophthalmology residency program.
Bath’s next plan of action was to take a leave of absence from UCLA and concentrate on her work.
- She invented the Laser-Phaco Probe, an advancement in the laser technology used to treat cataracts.
- When she received the patent for the Laser-Phaco Probe in 1988 (and, subsequently, for three other developments to this innovative technology), she became the first African American female doctor to obtain a medical license.
With her ground-breaking technology, she has been able to restore the eyesight of patients who have been unable to see for over thirty years, and, over her career, she has helped countless people.
10. Beatrix Shilling
- Revolutionized World War II airplane engines
- Fastest female race car driver
Beatrix Shilling is one of the famous female engineers of all times. She was a British mechanical engineer serving in the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) during World War II.
- She did not only develop a way to allow Spitfire planes to dive while in combat but was also a successful race car driver – holding the title of the fastest female racer.
After leaving school, she became an apprentice at a local electrical engineering company, headed by Margaret Partridge. Partridge was a founder of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and an advocate for women in science and engineering.
She encouraged Shilling to further her education, and WES supplied an interest-free loan to help her study.
Beatrix gained her Bachelor’s with honors in 1932 and received her Master’s degree the following year. While studying for the degree, she accepted a position as a research assistant, where she helped G.F. Mucklow with his work on supercharged engines.
Shilling joined the RAE at Farnborough as a technical writer, an experimental engineer, and finally, senior technical officer. She served her entire career with the RAE, her most notable contribution being “Miss Shilling’s Orifice.”
During the Second World War, British RAF planes were unable to maintain control while driving, as it caused the engines’ carburetors to flood and disengage, problems leading to many pilots dying due to engine failure.
- Beatrix Shilling devised a diaphragm to insert into the engine and prevent Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft from stalling, allowing the crew to operate the planes easier and safer.
While maintaining a successful career, she was also an avid motorcycle racer, modifying her bike herself.
She was the second female ever to receive a Brookland’s Gold Star for reaching 100 mph. She broke the record, reaching 106 mph, and thus becoming the fast female racer in the world.
Which of These Famous Female Engineers do You Appreciate Most?
There we have them, ten famous women in science and engineering!
It has been a fascinating journey learning about the lives of these outstanding female engineers who cemented the way for all of us in such a male-dominated field. They never allowed what others thought to stop or even slow them for a second.
It truly is admirable, and some of these biographies are only the tip of the iceberg. I would encourage you to learn more about them and others like them!
If you happen to have as a role model one of the famous female engineers on this list, tell us more about her! We also welcome all readers to share with us information and stories about your favorite female inventors and trailblazers!
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