Female Scientists Who Broke Glass Ceilings and Paved the Way for a Cleaner Energy Future

March 4, 2024 Angie Willits-Barnes

Clean and renewable energy might seem like only a modern-day concept, but it has roots going back over 150 years. For Women’s History Month, we look at three female scientists who were trailblazers in their respective fields and whose research and inventions established key concepts that are still used in the clean energy industry today.

Edith Clarke, 1883 - 1957

Edith Clarke, initially denied an engineering role due to gender discrimination, excelled as a "human computer" contributing significantly to advancements in electric power transmission systems and the smart grid over 25 years at GE.

When Edith Clarke started working for General Electric in 1919, she’d wanted to be an engineer. But because she was a woman, she was relegated to work as a “human computer,” where she completed lengthy mathematical equations that the male engineers considered too tedious to do themselves. But she excelled at the work and invented the “Clarke Calculator,” a graphical, non-electric calculator that greatly reduced the time it took to do laborious calculations. Despite all this, she was passed over for a promotion to engineer in 1921. She quit her job and moved overseas to teach physics at the Istanbul Women’s College. Two years later, GE asked her to come back, but this time as an engineer. She spent 25 years there, her work revolutionizing our understanding of electric power transmission systems and setting the groundwork for the smart grid. Read more about Clarke’s career.

Mária Telkes, 1900 - 1995

Maria Telkes, known as "The Sun Queen," pioneered modern solar technology with inventions such as a solar distiller for drinkable seawater during WWII and a groundbreaking solar-heated house.


A physical chemist, biophysicist, and inventor, Maria Telkes laid for the foundation for modern solar technology. Somewhat of a celebrity, she was dubbed “The Sun Queen” because many of her inventions harnessed the sun’s energy. One was an inflatable, solar distiller that made seawater drinkable and was given to soldiers during World War II. Another, and her biggest one of all, was a house heated entirely by solar energy, the first of its kind. Built in 1948 in Dover, Mass., it had 18 giant panels on one side that absorbed light. The heat transferred to canisters of “Glauber salts,” which melted when they reached 98 degrees. In cooler weather, when the salts re-solidified, the trapped solar heat was pumped throughout the house. Telkes heavily promoted the Dover House as the home of the future. Twice a week the family of three that lived there hosted open houses where visitors could see for themselves how the fascinating technology worked. Learn more about Telkes and her “Dover Sun House.”

Katharine Burr Blodgett, 1898 - 1979

Katharine Burr Blodgett, the first female scientist at General Electric, invented "invisible" glass by coating regular glass with molecular-thin layers, leading to the development of antireflective glass widely used today in various applications.800px-Katharine_Burr_Blodgett_(1898-1979),_demonstrating_equipment_in_lab

Do you have glare-free glasses? A camera? You can thank surface chemist Katharine Burr Blodgett for the crystal-clear views. She invented “invisible” glass by coating regular glass with extremely thin layers (down to the molecule) of substances until she achieved glass that didn’t reflect light. Today, antireflective glass is used for everything from car windshields to microscopes. It continues to find new uses in multiple industries. For example, the glass increases solar panel efficiency, repelling water and increasing light absorption. It also optimizes electrical conductivity in LED bulbs and is widely used in circuit manufacturing. In addition to her scientific achievements, Burr Blodgett also broke glass ceilings. She was the first female scientist hired at General Electric, working there from 1918 to 1963, and the first woman to earn a PhD in physics from Cambridge. Read more about her accomplishments.

Come help us at Franklin Energy build upon their amazing legacies of clean energy innovation. Check out our available job openings.


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