FREE to IEEE Members
Edith Clarke was one of those calculators, but she also went on to invent aids to speed calculations; became the first woman to be employed as an electrical engineer in the United States; was the first female U.S engineering professor; published a widely used electrical engineering textbook; and she was a trailblazer for women at IAEE (later becoming IEEE).
Edith Clarke: Trailblazer in Electrical Engineering is the second e-book in IEEE-USA’s Famous Women Engineers in History series. It outlines her accomplishments, as well as some of the challenges she faced along her journey.
Today, transmission lines can carry electricity hundreds of miles from wind farms in the midwest, to power hungry cities on the East Coast. In the early days of electricity, however, transmission lines of more than 40 miles were rare — and subject to failure. In the 1920s, electric power use grew quickly; and with it, the need to build longer transmission lines and more complex transmission systems — with much more complex calculations.
While working for GE (and prior to computers), Clarke discovered ways to speed transmission calculations — using graphical aids she called the Clarke Calculator. Her patented calculator solved problems that involved electric current, voltage and imbalances in power line transmissions, and could solve equations with hyperbolic functions ten times faster than other methods used at the time.
But Clarke wanted to be an engineer. Despite having graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar; earning her Master’s in Electrical Engineering from MIT; and patenting her computer, Clarke was unable to get promoted by GE to engineer. Other major companies would also not hire her as an engineer.
In frustration, Clarke left GE in 1921. She went to teach physics for one year at the Constantinople Women’s College in Turkey. GE felt her absence. In 1922, the company hired Clarke back — as an engineer. She became the first female hired as an electrical engineer in the United States.
Clarke was also the first person to use an analyzer to obtain data about power networks, improving the understanding of electrical flows on transmission systems. For this work, she has been dubbed “the founding mother of the smart grid.”
Later, Clarke became the first U.S. female electrical engineering professor, at The University of Texas at Austin.
Clarke also had a distinguished association with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, which later became IEEE). She was the first woman to present a paper at AIEE ( in 1926), and the first woman AIEE accepted as a full voting member of AIEE. Along with two other women, Clarke became one of the first female AIEE fellows.
Clarke’s influence on the industry was widespread. She published a textbook: Circuit Analysis of AC Power Systems, Symmetrical and Related Components; it became a major reference book for many electrical engineering programs around the country.
In 2015, she was inducted into the U.S. Inventors Hall of Fame, for her many accomplishments.
You can learn more about Edith Clarke in the new e-book: Famous Women in Engineering History: Edith Clarke -Trailblazer in Electric Engineering, free for all IEEE members at the IEEE-USA Shop. Non-members pay $2.99. The first book in the series: Famous Women Engineers in History: Hedy Lamarr — Inventor Extraordinaire and Hollywood Star is also available at the IEEE-USA Shop. The next book in the series, on Lillian Gilbreth, is scheduled for later this year.
About the Author
Paul Lief Rosengren is a frequent contributor to IEEE Insights and wrote the first book in this series on Hedy Lamarr, as well as In the Time of Covid: One Hospital’s Struggles and Triumphs — about the first year of Covid at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, NJ. It received a Best Independent Book Award in 2022.
Rosengren previously worked in internal and external communications for the State of New Jersey, NBC, PSEG, and BD and wrote speeches for the Presidents of both NBC and PSEG. While at PSEG, he was a founding member of the PSEG Diversity Council, initiated and facilitated the PSEG D&I Book Club. Rosengren received the PR News Diversity Award.
Rosengren is currently writing screenplays and TV pilots, learning the didgeridoo, and advocating for electric cars. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulRosengren and can contact him at PLRosengren@gmail.com.