In celebration of Women’s History Month, this post features four women who paved the way for women in engineering throughout history: Emily Roebling (top left), Hertha Ayrton (top right), Lillian Gilbreth (bottom left), and Mary G. Ross (bottom right). This post is part of a series focusing on women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).
There are many, many other women who made important contributions to STEM throughout history; check out the bottom of this post for some suggested sources if you want to learn more.
Emily Roebling (1843-1903)
Image source: New-York Historical Society Library
Emily Roebling didn’t set out to be an engineer, but ended up becoming one of the most prominent figures in the decade-long construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling married a civil engineer, Washington Roebling, in 1865. His father designed the Brooklyn Bridge and was named main engineer of the project, but a tragic accident led to his son taking over the role. In a truly unfortunate cycle, Washington Roebling suffered decompression sickness due to the building process and was left bedridden. With her husband unable to be physically present at the build site and workers awaiting instruction, Emily Roebling stepped in to cover daily supervision, project management, and to relay messages from her husband over the course of ten years of construction. When her husband’s title as chief engineer was challenged due to his condition, Roebling fought to keep his name on the project. When the bridge was finally completed in 1883, Emily Roebling was the first person to cross it. She spent the rest of her life studying law, traveling extensively, and speaking up about women’s rights.
Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923)
Electrical engineer and mathematician
Image source: Evelyn Sharp
Hertha Ayrton was born to a large family in Hampshire, England and helped raise her siblings when her father died unexpectedly when she was 7. She later excelled in mathematics and science in school, and was working as a governess by the age of 16. By age 26 she had completed all of the requirements at Oxford to earn a degree through the Mathematical Tripos examination, but was only awarded a certificate because she was a woman. Ayrton eventually went on to earn a Bachelor of Science from the Univeristy of London. In 1884 she patented her first invention, a line-divider used by artists, architects, and engineers. She went on to register 26 patents in total. Hertha Ayrton is mainly known for her work with the electric arc, which was a popular technology for public lighting at the time. She supported women’s suffrage, helped establish the International Federation of University Women, and tutored Marie Curie’s daughter in math.
Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972)
Industrial engineer and psychologist
Image source: Purdue University Libraries
Lillian Gilbreth, despite her father’s protests, enrolled in the University of California in 1896. She studied English, philosophy, psychology, and earned a teaching certificate as well. She jumed around through graduate schools, ultimately earning her master’s degree in literature from the University of California in 1902 and her PhD in applied psychology from Brown University in 1915. Gilbreth was a pioneer in applying psychology to time-and-motion studies and human factors, bridging the gap between industrial engineering and the psychological dimenssions of work. She worked closely with her husband, and even though he did not attend college and she held a PhD, Lillian Gilbreth was cited much less frequently in their work. After her husband’s death, Gilbreth was forced to turn her focus to the “women’s work” of household management, and her contributions include the invention of the step-pedal trash can, the triangle workspace model of kitchen design, and adding shelves to refrigerator doors. Two of her children wrote the biographical novel Cheaper by the Dozen, followed by a sequel Belles on Their Toes, about life in the Gilbreth family.
Mary G. Ross (1908-2008)
Image source: Evelyn Ross McMillan
Mary G. Ross was born in Oklahoma and received her education in the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah. She taught math and science during the Great Depression, and moved to California after the US entered World War II to look for work. Lockheed hired her on as a mathematician in 1942 working on a revolutionary airplane, though Ross secretly wished she could work on projects related to interplanetary travel. Lockheed sent her to UCLA after the war, where she earned a professional certification in engineering while still pursuing her interest in astronomy and spaceflight. She eventually joined the Skunk Works project, where she was finally able to work on rocket projects and preliminary concepts for flyby missions of Venus and Mars. Ross was promoted to a senior advanced systems staff engineer and continued working at Lockheed until her retirement in 1973. She spent the rest of her life working with groups like the Society of Women Engineers, the American Indians in Science and Engineering Society, and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. Upon her death, Ross left $400,000 in an endowment to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.