Thus Spake Zuska

The Madame Curie of Machine Tools

Penny Richards wrote via email to tell me that Saturday, November 25 was Kate Gleason’s birthday.

Gleason (1865-1933) was the first woman admitted to full membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, in the 1910s (she represented ASME at an international conference in Germany in 1930). She was also the daughter of Irish immigrants, a bank president, an executive at her family’s gear-planing company, and a lifelong suffragist. At Rochester Institute of Technology, the Kate Gleason College of Engineering is named in her honor, and displays a bust of Gleason at its entrance.

Penny asked if there are any other engineering schools in the U.S. [or elsewhere?} named for women. I am not aware of any, but if you are, please do write and tell me about them.

Penny also sent me the link for Gleason’s wikipedia entry. I like this quote from the entry:

Fred H. Colvin described Kate Gleason in his memoirs as “a kind of Madame Curie of machine tools […] Kate spent her youth learning her father’s business from the ground up, both in the shop and in the field, so that when she branched out for herself about 1895 as a saleswoman for her father’s gear-cutting machines, she knew as much as any man in the business.”

That’s 1895, folks, when Kate was using her expertise in gear-cutting machines as a saleswoman for her father’s business.

It’s so very important to recover our history and remind ourselves that we have not just struggled – we have also triumphed. It’s important to know and to remember that our history doesn’t just extend back twenty or thirty or even fifty years. Even Kate Gleason doesn’t represent the earliest point in the distinguished history of women in science and technology – not by a long shot.

The insidious poison of sexism can lead you over time to half-suspect that perhaps it is, in some way, unnatural for women to embrace engineering. Or that maybe you are, indeed, a lonely pioneer, an oddity, some sort of freak. Women like Kate Gleason provide a healthy antidote.

Women like Kate Gleason can remind you that to love engineering, to want to do science, is a natural human impulse whose full expression is a wonderful thing – in women as well as in men. Women like Kate Gleason can remind you that women have always loved technology. Women like Kate Gleason can remind you that women like you are exactly as you ought to be – exactly what the future needs.


  1. #1 Schlupp
    November 30, 2006

    Hi Zuska!

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now (thanks for writing it), but it’s the first time I comment.

    And on my first comment, I’m immediately starting to criticise you: As far as I know, the name on Marie Curie’s tomb reads “Curie-Sk?odowska”, which seems to indicate that she would prefer the full form, also because she was proud of her Polish origin. Now, I usually also just say “Curie”, because it’s shorter and because I’m rubish at pronouncing Polish, but why have you also robbed her of her given name? She’s not just Pierre’s wive!

  2. #2 Penny
    November 30, 2006

    Oh, I’m glad you took up the story of Kate Gleason. Funny you should mention the word “freak,” because Gleason did too:

    “In those early days I was a freak; I talked of gears when a woman was not supposed to know what a gear was. It did me much good. For, no matter how much men disapproved of me, they were at least interested in seeing me, one distinct advantage I had over the ordinary salesman.”

    (I sanded pistons in my dad’s engine shop as a teenager; didn’t go into the business, but the scent of a well-worn car repair bay still makes me smile)

  3. #3 drshellie
    December 1, 2006

    The “Retrospective History of Our Field” talks at major conferences (complete with many, many photos of bearded, white men) can unfortunately have the same effect– to make you suspect that is unnatural for women to embrace engineering. Sad but true. Same for the pictures of past department chairs, professional society presidents, etc, etc… For those who haven’t seen it yet, check out today’s PhD Comics for a picture of “Real Faculty.” (Tip thanks to a commenter over at FemaleScienceProfessor’s place.)

  4. #4 drshellie
    December 1, 2006

    It has been said before, but I, for one, do not want to die early of radiation poisoning for the sake of science! So perhaps Kate Gleason is a better model than Marie Curie? Nevertheless, thanks for this post Zuska, it gave me a good feeling yesterday and today.

  5. #5 SuzyQueue
    December 2, 2006

    I have made it a point to celebrate each ‘first’ woman elected to membership in the engineering professional societies by ordering a cake and having a party in the student commons area. I read a short biography of the woman whose birthday we are celebrating.

    I do celebrate other birthdays and since I am buying the cake, I get to decide the event, whether it be a person’s, building’s, or event’s birthday. I celebrate Chuck Yeager’s birthday as he was a pioneer but not able to become an astronaut since he did not have a college degree. This fact stuns the students. How could he have been discriminated against? I also give a short summary of the women astronauts who trained as well during that party.

  6. #6 Kaleberg
    December 6, 2006

    Just figured I’d mention that Gleason was the outfit that developed the hypoid gear which is the gear that changed the way that automobiles transmitted power from the drive shaft to the drive axle. You may have noticed that all those old time cars, like the Model T had a lot of room between the body of the car and the ground, but that later cars, in the 1930s or so, were much lower to the ground. That’s because of the Gleason hypoid gear.

    Whether Ms. Gleason was directly involved in the development and marketing of the hypoid gear, I cannot say, but the company and the gear industry had a major impact on automobile industry.

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