Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 794:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 794.

Today, a conservative woman radicalizes American education. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Last spring I went to the commencement at MIT. I watched two women getting Ph.D. degrees. One came directly to Houston as a new faculty member in my department. The other was my daughter-in-law. She went on to do a post-doc in theoretical chemistry.

They were the latest women to graduate from MIT. The very first woman in that lineage was Ellen Swallow, born in 1842 in a small New England town. Ruth Cowan tells us that Ellen's parents were schoolteacher/farmers -- that they gave her all the education she got until she was 25.

In 1868 she went to the new women's college of Vassar. Two years later she petitioned to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- now nine years old. She was denied, of course.

But then, with a logic peculiar to another age, MIT cut a deal. She couldn't be a regular paying student because she was female. Still, they could let her sit in free of charge.

Ellen Swallow finished her degree and stayed on as a chemistry assistant. She set to work analyzing Boston's water supply. She also married a mining professor -- Robert Richards.

Then she made an end run. She talked wealthy Boston society into putting up money for para-academic studies. She created a Women's Laboratory at MIT where women could learn the rudiments of science. She set up a correspondence school for homebound women. She wrote its science curriculum. She set up the New England Kitchen, where working class people could learn about nutrition.

She'd positioned herself where she could keep the heat on MIT to admit women into its regular programs. She won that battle in 1882. Two years later, MIT made Ellen Swallow Richards its first woman faculty member. She helped develop a new curriculum in air, water, and sewage chemistry.

Richards might seem conservative by our standards. She saw the home and child-rearing as complex and important work. The women who did it, she said, should be educated.

Ellen Swallow Richards She spent thirty years developing the concept of domestic science. In 1908 she organized the American Home Economics Association. She died in 1911, and by 1930 universities finally began giving home economics degrees. She'd once been America's first sanitary engineering instructor -- of either gender. Now, at last, she'd created the new field of home economics as well.

As homes have grown more automated, the field of home economics has faded. Still, Richards's effort -- restrained and determined -- bore fruit for me last Spring at MIT. That effort added a new faculty member to my department. And it is shaping the next generation of my own family as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Schwartz Cowan, R., Ellen Swallow Richards: Technology and Women. Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas. (C.W. Pursell, ed.), Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986, Chapter 13.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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