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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

Woman of the Week – Bessie Coleman

Posted September 18, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to stage a public flight in America and first to hold a pilot’s license.

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, she went into the cotton fields at a young age but also studied in a small segregated school and went on to attend one term of college at Langston University. She couldn’t afford any more schooling, so she went to live with her brother in Chicago. Then, Chicago was hit with one of the worst racial riots in history. Her family was not involved or harmed, but it left a certain vibe within the city.

She had developed an early interest in flying, but there were no opportunities for a young woman of color. She decided now was the time to follow her dream and escape the violence in Chicago. So, she saved up money to go to France to become a licensed pilot.

She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet."

On June 15, 1921, Coleman earned an aviation pilot’s license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French pilot and in September 1921 she sailed for New York. She became somewhat famous upon her return to the U.S.

As well as fame, Coleman was also criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt.

In 1923 Coleman purchased a small plane but crashed on the way to her first scheduled West Coast air show. The plane was destroyed and Coleman suffered injuries that hospitalized her for three months.

She was on a speaking tour in Florida when she met the Rev. Hezakiah Hill and his wife Viola, community activists who invited her to stay with them at the parsonage of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Street in the neighborhood of Paramore. The couple took her in, like a daughter, and encouraged her to work in a beauty shop to earn money for another plane.

Her flights, personalities, and fame gave her enough pull to save for yet another plane. She also had a lifelong dream of eventually opening an aviation school.

Tragically, however, she was never able to see this happen. On an exhibition flight in 1926, she took flight with her mechanic and publicist William D. Willis. The plane – a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) – had been flown to Florida from Texas by Willis and needed to make three emergency landings along the way. Upon hearing this, family and friends discouraged the flight. She went regardless. They took flight and she didn’t have her safety belt on, as she had planned a parachute jump for after the flight and wanted to be able to move about and see the terrain. The plane took an unexpected dive and she was thrown from the plane and was killed instantly. Willis attempted to regain control of the plane, but it fell to the ground and he too died upon impact. The wreckage was badly burned, but it was later discovered that a wrench used to fix the engine had jammed the controls.

3 comments; last comment on 09/22/2017
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Woman of the Week – Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Posted September 11, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Rebecca Lee Crumpler is best known for being the first African-American woman physician in the United States.

She was born in Delaware in 1831, but grew up in Pennsylvania. She spent a lot of time with her aunt, who cared for the ill, while she was growing up. Crumpler later attended the elite West Newton English and Classical School in Massachusetts where she was a "special student in mathematics."

She worked as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts until she was accepted to the New England Female Medical College in 1861. Very rarely were women or black men let into the school. In the U.S. at that time, there were more than 50,000 physicians, 300 of which were women – none of those were women of color, however.

She won a tuition award from the Wade Scholarship Fund, which was established by the Ohio abolitionist, Benjamin Wade. She became the first African-American woman to be named a doctor of Medicine in 1864. She was also the only African-American woman to earn a full degree from the college, as it later closed and eventually merged with Boston University.

She opened a medical practice in Boston after graduation and stayed there until the end of the Civil War. Then, she and her husband moved to Richmond, Virginia where she recalled that she began “the proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”

Crumpler worked under General Orlando Brown, the Assistant Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau for the State of Virginia. This federal agency charged with helping more than 4,000,000 slaves make the stunning transition from bondage to freedom. In Richmond, she was faced with racism, mistreatment, sexism, and general unwanted behavior, all of which she ignored, in order to treat as she later wrote, “a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.”

She then returned to practice in Boston for a short time, and then eventually settled in Hyde Park, New York. Moving to New York could be considered her retirement, though in this time she wrote a notable book, “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” which was published by Cashman, Keating and Co., of Boston, in 1883. The book focused on the medical care of women and children, the kind of care that sparked her interest in medicine.

4 comments; last comment on 09/14/2017
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Woman of the Week – Mary Anderson

Posted August 21, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

We can thank Mary Anderson when we drive in the rain or snow. She’s the inventor of the automatic windshield wiper.

During a visit to New York City in 1902, she was riding the trolley when she noticed the driver had both windows open to keep them clear of the falling snow. She thought that there must be a simpler way to keep the snow and ice away without having the windows open in the winter.

She went home to Alabama and hired a designer for a hand-operated device to keep a windshield clear. After producing a prototype, she applied for and was granted a 17-year patent in 1903. The device was a lever that was inside the vehicle and controlled a rubber blade outside. The spring-loaded arm moved back and forth across a windshield and a counterweight ensured the wiper blade stayed in contact with the window. Similar attempts at this were made earlier, but Anderson’s was the first to actually work.


The patent application describes how the wiper was to be operated by a handle inside the vestibule of the vehicle, and be easily removable, "thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather," according to patent language.

In 1905, she tried to sell the rights to her invention, but it was rejected. When her patent expired in 1920, wipers using her design became part of the standard on many cars to be produced. But she was never directly given credit for the idea.

A letter from the firm of Dinning and Eckenstein is kept safe by her great-great-niece, Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Wingo was interviewed by NPR about her relative in July.

"Dear madam," the letter begins," We beg to acknowledge receipt of your recent favor with reference to the sale of your patent. In reply, we regret to state we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale."

Wingo suspects her invention wasn’t taken seriously because Anderson was a completely independent woman.

"She didn't have a father; she didn't have a husband and she didn't have a son," Wingo told NPR. "And the world was kind of run by men back then."

She did finally earn some recognition for her idea, only a few years ago though. In 2011, she was inducted into the inventors Hall of Fame.

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Woman of the Week – Mary Eliza Mahoney

Posted August 07, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States, graduating in 1879. Mahoney was one of the first African Americans to graduate from a nursing school. She challenged the discrimination she faced while learning and practicing in a predominantly white society.

She was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Mahoney's parents were freed slaves, originally from North Carolina, who moved north before the Civil War.

From a young age, she knew she wanted to be a nurse. She worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children (now the Dimock Community Health Center) for 15 years before being accepted into its nursing school, the first in the United States. She was 33 years old when she was admitted in 1878.

The work was rigorous. She was required to spend at least a year in the hospital’s various wards to gain universal knowledge, as well as attend lectures and observe doctors in the field.

After completing these requirements, Mahoney graduated in 1879 as a registered nurse — the first black woman to do so in the United States.

After gaining her nursing diploma, Mahoney worked for many years as a private care nurse, earning a distinguished reputation. She worked for predominantly white, wealthy families. She quickly earned a reputation for being professional, courteous and skilled. Word of her excellent work spread and she was quickly in high demand.

She worked for many families and hoped that by meeting many, she could spread the message against discrimination and eventually make equality more accepted.

In 1908, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah B. Thoms. This organization attempted to uplift the standards and everyday lives of African-American registered nurses. The NACGN had a significant influence on eliminating racial discrimination in the registered nursing profession. In 1951, the NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association.

From 1911 to 1912, Mahoney served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black children in Kings Park, Long Island. The Howard Orphan Asylum served as a home for freed colored children and the colored elderly. This institution was run by African Americans. Here, Mary Eliza Mahoney finished her career, helping people and using her knowledge however she knew best.

In retirement, Mahoney was still concerned with women's equality and remained a strong supporter of women's suffrage. She actively participated in the advancement of civil rights in the United States. In 1920, when women were granted the right to vote, Mahoney was among the first women in Boston to register to vote.


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Woman of the Week – Martha Coston

Posted July 31, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

At 21, Martha Coston found herself widowed with four young children. After her husband Benjamin Coston died, she found his plans for a pyrotechnic (signal) flare in his notebook and decided that she could design a signal flare that would work based on the preliminary plans.

She faced two big challenges before she could come up with a design. First, the flares had to be simple enough to use in coded color combinations. They also had to be bright, durable, and long-lasting. Both factors were crucial so they could be effective tools for ship-to-ship and ship-to-land communications.

Her husband’s designs were a good starting point, but she had a lot of work to do before they were completed. For nearly ten years, Coston drove herself to develop a system of flare signaling based on Benjamin’s early work. With a limited knowledge of chemistry and pyrotechnics, she relied on the advice of hired chemists and fireworks experts – with mixed results. A breakthrough came in 1858, while Coston was witnessing the fireworks display in New York City celebrating the completion of the transatlantic telegraph cable; she realized that her system needed a bright blue flare, along with the red and white she had already developed. She established the Coston Manufacturing Company to manufacture the signal flares and entered into a business relationship with a pyrotechnics developer to provide the necessary blue color.

On April 5, 1859, she was granted U.S. Patent number 23,536 for a pyrotechnic night signal and code system (the patent was granted to her as administratrix for her husband, who is named as inventor). Using different combinations of colors, the flares enabled ships to signal to one another and to the shore. After extended testing – which demonstrated the effectiveness of the system –, the U.S. Navy ordered an initial set of 300 flares and later placed an order for $6000 worth of flares.

From there, Coston obtained patents for the flares in several other parts of Europe.

She remained in Europe until 1861, when she returned to the U.S. on the outbreak of the Civil War. She petitioned Congress to purchase the patent so that the flares could be used in the approaching conflict. After some delay, Congress passed an act on August 5, 1861, authorizing the U.S. Navy to purchase the patent for $20,000 (less than the $40,000 she had originally demanded).

Coston flares were used extensively by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War; they proved particularly effective in the discovery and capture of Confederate blockade runners during the Union blockade of southern ports. Coston flares also played an important role in coordinating naval operations during the battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina on January 13–15, 1865.

In 1871, Coston obtained a patent in her own name – Patent No. 115,935, Improvement in Pyrotechnic Night Signals. In addition to working on improvements to the signaling system, she continued to press claims for additional compensation from the U.S. government. Due to wartime inflation, the Coston Manufacturing Company supplied flares to the U.S. Navy at less than cost; Coston estimated that the government owed her $120,000 in compensation. Although she pressed her claims for over ten years, she was offered only $15,000 additional reimbursement.

Coston’s desires to be taken seriously and have her invention succeed were only part of her struggles. Almost immediately following her husband’s death, she and her sons moved back to Philadelphia to live with her mother; soon thereafter, her youngest son became ill and passed away. It was not long after this that her mother's health began to deteriorate and, despite Martha's great care, she too passed on. She was left without much money, but her motivation got her by.

Eventually, every station of the United States Life-Saving Service was equipped with Coston flares which were used to signal ships, warn of dangerous coastal conditions, and summon rescuers to a wreck scene. Many accounts of wrecks and rescues describe the use of the Coston flare, which was instrumental in saving thousands of lives. Martha died in 1904; her company, later called the Coston Signal Company and the Coston Supply Company, remained in business until at least 1985.


1 comments; last comment on 07/31/2017
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