Faces of HPC: Edith Clarke
Edith Clarke was a pioneer for women in technology and computing. Clarke was not only the first woman to be be a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, but also the first woman to earn an MSc from MIT, the first woman to work for General Electric as an Engineer and in 1916 become the first woman to present a paper to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Although her work has had most influence in electrical engineering, one of her most influential achievements was in the design of a calculator that provided faster processing than previous ‘human’ computers.
Edith Clarke’s work in computing and technology began in 1919. During her career Edith gained recognition for her work on a mathematical model that enabled electrical engineers to work on larger systems than ever before and in her spare time invented the ‘Clarke calculator’; a patented device used to solve hyperbolic functions ten times faster than previous methods.
Edith Clarke was born in 1883 as one of 9 children, in a small farming community in Maryland, USA. Orphaned as a child, at the age of 12 she used her inheritance to study mathematics and astronomy at Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, New York), the first degree-granting institution that awarded higher education qualifications to women. Clarke’s professional career began by teaching mathematics and physics at a private school in San Francisco before studying civil engineering and only 4 years after graduating leaving to become a “computer” for AT&T before becoming a trainer and leader for a group of (human) “computers”.
During her time at AT&T, Clarke took evening classes in Electrical Engineering at Columbia University before enrolling at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she became the first woman to earn a Master of Science in 1919. After graduating Clarke struggled to find a job as an engineer, so instead went on to work as a supervisor for (human) ‘computers’ at General Electric. During her spare time Edith developed a calculator, that went on to be patented in 1925, which significantly sped up the calculation of hyberbolic equations important in the design of electrical systems and power including electric current, voltage and impedance by solving hyperbolic equations. In 1922 Clarke was eventually hired by General Electric as their first female electrical engineer: a position she kept until her retirement from the company in 1945.
In 1947 she took up a faculty position at the University of Texas at Austin, once again becoming a female pioneer as the first female professor of Electrical Engineering in the US.
Edison Tech Center, http://www.edisontechcenter.org/Clarke.html, last accessed on 26 Sep 2017.
Edith Clarke, Wikipedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Clarke, last accessed on 26 Sep 2017.
Rise Up! Women in Technology; She Can Code, https://shecancode.io/blog/rise-up-women-in-technology, last accessed on 26 Sep 2017.