There’s a saying that goes, behind every man is an even greater woman. In a time when opportunities for women were few and far between, these women were able to contribute to the greatest industry inventions: not by standing behind the men, but beside them.
MINA MILLER EDISON - THE DE FACTO PR AGENT - 1865-1947
It was February 1886 when 20-year-old Mina Miller married Thomas Edison, a recent widower and father of three young children.
Mina was a reverent, intelligent young woman with an innate flair for taking charge.
A business partner, active socialite, conservationist, horticulturalist, wife, confidant and mother; Mina’s young age was no measure of her competence. When Edison devoted long hours to the laboratory, Mina fiercely protected her husband’s privacy, orchestrated his social calendar and played host to the likes of Presidents Hoover and Wilson.
Not one to have her life paled by the success of her partner, Mina worked tirelessly for the surrounding communities. From social, educational and religious causes to studying foreign cultures. Mina didn’t just secure Thomas Edison’s greatness, she mirrored it.
In doing so, Mina shielded his career from distractions and ensured he had the time and focus to achieve his potential.
Thomas Edison created the light bulb, electric generating system, sound-recording device and more. His inventions are said to have accelerated modern society.
DEBORAH READ FRANKLIN - THE FORGOTTEN FOUNDING MOTHER - 1708-1774
Deborah Read declined Benjamin Franklin’s proposal in the early 1700’s. Instead, they entered into a common law marriage, agreeing to live together as husband and wife without formal approval by religious or civil authorities.
Unlike her partner, Deborah wasn’t interested in science or politics. However, what Deborah did have was a good head for business, which she used to run the couple’s book and stationary shop and their general store, whilst Franklin travelled and pursued his political career. Her entrepreneurial spirit led to the expansion of their post office, creating educational opportunities for the poor, and the installation of streetlights and paved roads for safety.
When Franklin was in England, an angry mob in Philadelphia, displeased with Franklin’s political conquests, threatened to attack Deborah and Franklin’s home. Deborah told the crowd that no-one would force her from her own home, and the mob retreated.
Having taken in Franklin’s illegitimate son whilst managing their businesses and defending their home, Deborah allowed Franklin the luxury of a life wholly devoted to his public career.
Upon Deborah’s death, Franklin penned a letter to his friend in which he mourned: ‘I have lately lost my old and faithful Companion; and I every day become more sensible of the greatness of that Loss; which cannot now be repaired.’
As a scientist, Benjamin Franklin was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions.
EMILY ROEBLING - THE FIRST FEMALE FIELD ENGINEER - 1843-1903
Emily Roebling didn’t intend on becoming an engineer, yet she’s credited as spearheading one of the biggest engineering feats of her time.
The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. However, in 1872 the Chief Engineer, Washington Roebling, fell ill and was unable to complete the construction, so he turned to his wife.
At this time, Emily Roebling assumed the role of the first female field engineer. In doing so, she was responsible for the day-to-day project management, relaying information from her husband to the workers and carrying out her own studies of technical issues, materials, stress analysis, construction and calculations. Washington described his wife as ‘a strong tower to lean upon, my wife, a woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel.’
Upon the bridge’s completion, Congressman Abram S. Hewitt declared that the Brooklyn Bridge would forever be ‘an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of woman.’ Once the bridge was finished, Emily would go on to study a law degree.
*Washington Roebling was a famous engineer and craftsman and, with his father, he designed and lead the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
MILEVA MARIC - THE SECRET PHYSICIST - 1875-1948
As a young girl, Mileva Maric’s father sent her across the border to Serbia, where men and women had the same educational rights. It was here that he petitioned for his daughter’s acceptance into the all-male Royal Classical Gymnasium. Once accepted, she became one of the first women in the Austro-Hungarian empire to sit in a high school physics lecture alongside her male peers.
It was whilst studying at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich that Mileva met Albert Einstein, her future husband. Recently discovered letters showcase Mileva and Albert’s shared scientific and mathematical enthusiasms. Albert wrote to Mileva: ‘how happy and proud will I be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion!’
Not only was Maric an intellectual equivalent, she also offered Einstein emotional support. One of the recently discovered letters articulates the effect Mileva had on Einstein during such a formative period in his career: ‘Without you I lack self-confidence, pleasure in work ... without you my life is no life.’
Mileva’s success preceded her relationship with Einstein, and during their relationship, it was her intelligence that formed the basis of Einstein’s work. Einstein even confessed that he needed his wife, because she solved all of his mathematical equations for him. Though Mileva was never named in Einstein’s scientific papers, he did share the money from his Nobel Peace Prize with her, despite being divorced at the time.
*Albert Einstein was an electrician turned scientist, whose Theory of Relativity is considered one of the two pillars of modern physics. *
The impact women have had on the way we live today is often overlooked, so it’s no surprise that currently, only 11% of the engineering workforce is female and only one in every 1000 electrical contractors in the UK is a woman. These solemn statistics highlight the importance of celebrating the women behind some of the greatest industry inventions.