With South Africa celebrating Women’s Day on 9 August, and in fact the entire month as Women’s Month, I would like to take this opportunity to honour some of history’s most famous female engineers and inventors. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but rather a look back at some of the more significant contributions made by women during times when the engineering landscape was even more male-dominated than it is today.
Hedy Lamarr. Hers was a household name in the 1940s, but not for reasons that have anything to do with the theme of this column. She was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actresses, with an interesting past and even more interesting pastimes. She had various hobbies and is credited with several inventions, the most significant of which was a technique to prevent Allied torpedoes’ radio-control signals from being jammed by the enemies during World War 2.
Together with her friend, the composer George Antheil, Lamarr developed a frequency-hopping system that was patented and offered to the US Navy. The Navy dismissed it before implementing a modified version in its ships in 1962, and the technology formed the basis for modern communication systems such as Bluetooth. She was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
Edith Clarke. After becoming the University of Texas’ first ever female electrical engineer in 1912, Clarke later went on to become the first American female professor of electrical engineering, at the same university in 1943. In the years between, she struggled to find work as an engineer and went to work for General Electric as a supervisor of computers (in those days computer was the title for a person whose job it was to perform mathematical calculations). During this time she invented the Clarke calculator, a simple graphical device that solved equations involving hyperbolic functions, leading to much more accurate characterisations of long power transmission lines.
Ada Lovelace. In the world of computing, the name Charles Babbage is legendary for his invention of the Analytical Engine, a mechanical general-purpose computer first conceived in 1837 as the successor to his equally famous difference engine. It is astounding to think that, comprising an arithmetic logic unit, control flow in the form of conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory, the Analytical Engine was so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t until more than a century later, in the 1940s, that the first general-purpose computers could actually be built, and the same logical structure still serves as the basis for computer design today.
If Babbage is the father of computer architecture, Lovelace is the mother of programming, as it was she who recognised the true extent of the machine’s potential. The daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, she was the first person credited with seeing beyond the mere number-crunching possibilities.
Her contribution is best summed up by the words of South African-born historian of computing and Babbage specialist, Doron Swade. As quoted by Wikipedia, Swade said: “Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage’s world his engines were bound by number...What Lovelace saw – what Ada Byron saw – was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules.
“It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation – to general-purpose computation – and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.”
Unfortunately, I write this column against the backdrop of a gender controversy that is raging in the South African engineering sector. Manglin Pillay, CEO of the South African Institute of Civil Engineering (SAICE), sparked it off when he expressed his opinions in an article in the July issue of Civil Engineering magazine about women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industries.
It is not hard to see what the furore is about, as the following are just two of the contentious points he put forward: “…the fact that more men occupy high-profile executive posts is tremendous not because of gender but because of appetite for workload and extreme performance requirements at that level… The reason why women do not occupy these positions is that women choose to have the flexibility to dedicate themselves to more important enterprises like family and raising of children than to be at the beck and call of shareholders who will wake you up in the middle of the night to attend to shareholder aspirations.”
His article has drawn widespread ire, with the lobby group WomEng going so far as to describe it as misogynistic and issue a petition calling for his removal. The SAICE has called an emergency board meeting for 8 August to address the issue, and it’s hard to see how he is going to be able to defend his position.
There is much progress that still needs to be made to address gender inequality in the engineering sector, and no number of columns I write can fix the problem. Perhaps by dragging the issue into the spotlight and inciting public outcry, Pillay’s comments might ironically end up spurring a movement towards a positive change.
Brett van den Bosch