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Illustration of four female pioneers of energy
Energy explained

Women in energy: early pioneers

This International Women's Day, we’re celebrating some of the undersung heroes in the history of energy. We meet four of the women who were changing the face of science before we were wearing matching socks.

Dr. Katherine Burr Blodgett (1898 - 1979)

Physicist, chemist, inventor

Illustration of Dr Katharine Burr Blodgett looking at a test tube

As well as being the first female scientist employed at General Electric in New York by the age of 20, Dr. Katherine Burr Blodgett was also the first woman to achieve a Ph.D in physics from the University of Cambridge.

Katherine invented all sorts throughout her long career, but she’s best known for her work with Dr. Irving Langmuir at General Electric. She applied Dr. Langmuir’s technique for creating a film that was just a single-molecule thick to new materials. By creating microscopic layers on glass, Katherine reduced glare to the point that the glass became invisible.

Katherine’s invisible glass was used to remove pesky reflections from telescopes, microscopes, submarine periscopes and camera lenses. In fact, she’s almost solely responsible for the crystal-clear cinematography in Gone With the Wind. Her technique for applying nanolayers to metal and glass have since been applied to solar panels and LED lighting to improve efficiency and conductivity.

Annie Easley (1933 - 2011)

Mathematician and rocket scientist

Illustration of Annie Easley working at NASA

Annie Easley began her career as a mathematician at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics in 1955. As a “human computer,” Annie was responsible for analysing problems and doing complex calculations by hand.

As NASA’s space programme became more established, human computers were replaced by machines. Annie became a talented computer programmer, writing software that was integral to the launch of the Centaur rocket, and many others to follow. She worked on early solar, wind and battery projects, and solved the complicated energy problems that come along with putting vehicles in outer space.

Annie encouraged women and ethnic minorities to apply for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and helped her supervisors to address inequalities in the workplace. As well as making impressive contributions to computer science, Annie made a point of being the first woman at NASA to wear trousers.

Dr. Mária Telkes (1900 - 1995)

Biophysicist, solar scientist, inventor

Illustration of Dr. Mária Telkes

Dr. Mária Telkes earned her nickname “The Sun Queen” thanks to her pioneering work with solar thermal storage technology. (Try saying that three times fast.) Born in Hungary, she began her career in solar energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939.

During World War II, Mária was recruited by the US government as a civilian advisor. She invented an emergency desalination kit that used the sun’s rays to turn seawater into drinking water for pilots and sailors stranded at sea.

Her ambition was to design a home that was heated entirely by clean solar energy. In the late 40s, Mária teamed up with architect Eleanor Raymond to create The Dover Sun House, which relied on using salt to store up and release heat trapped from sunlight. She went on to invent a solar-powered oven, and helped the US Department of Energy create the first solar-electric home in 1980.

Stephanie Kwolek (1923 - 2014)

Chemist and inventor

Illustration of Stephanie Kwolek holding a pink synthetic fibre

Stephanie Kwolek grew up dreaming of being a fashion designer, and ended up inventing the bulletproof vest. After bagging a degree in chemistry in Pittsburgh, Stephanie joined the textile fibres lab at the DuPont company in 1946.

Stephanie’s research focused on synthetic fibres, and in 1964, she began looking for a lightweight fibre that could replace the steel used in car tyres. As part of this work, she discovered liquid crystalline polymers that could be spun together to create a heat-resistant material that’s 5 times stronger than steel. This material would come to be known as Kevlar.

Kevlar has lots of uses, from bulletproof vests to racing sails via marching drums and bicycle tyres. Her invention is also used on the blades of wind turbines, increasing their efficiency without weighing them down. Stephanie worked at DuPont for more than 40 years, and is the only female employee to earn the Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement.

So there we have it, four incredible people who changed the energy industry forever. Let us know if we missed your favourite historical energy pioneer over in the Bulb community.