Throwback Thursday: Engineer and businesswoman Kate Gleason

Considered one of the most influential woman in engineering, Kate Gleason was an American engineer and businesswoman known both for being an accomplished woman in the predominantly male field of engineering and for her philanthropy. Her unconventional attitude and approach to business and engineering made her a pioneer in the field and paved the way for a growing number of women engineers.

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Born Catherine Anselm Gleason on November 25, 1865 in Rochester, New York, she was the oldest of four children of William Gleason and Ellen McDermott Gleason, immigrants from Ireland. Her father, the owner of The Gleason Works, a machine tools company, played an important role in cultivating her interest in engineering. 

After the death of her half brother, Gleason started helping out her father in the machine tools factory. This was the start of her career in engineering. After completing high school in 1884, she enrolled in Cornell University for mechanical engineering, becoming the first woman in the program. When her father’s shop came upon hard times, Gleason returned home, leaving her degree incomplete. Although she never earned a formal engineering degree, through self-learning she earned the title. Some of her formal education came from the Sibley College of Engraving and the Mechanics Institute, which later became the now famous Rochester Institute of Technology
In 1893, Gleason worked with her father to design a machine that could produce beveled gears at a low cost. With her help and direction, The Gleason Works became the leading producer of gear cutting machinery in the US. Along with her brothers, Gleason took her father’s machine shop to the next level of business. The Gleason Works later became Gleason Corporation. Today, Gleason Corporation is one of the most important makers of gear-cutting machine tools in the world.
Gleason resigned from the family company in 1913, joining Ingle Machine Company. In 1914, she was named to the German Engineering Society. She became a member of the Rochester Engineering Society in 1917. She was also the first woman to become a president of First Bank of Rochester in 1917. 
Because of her accomplishments in the machine-tool business, she became the first woman elected to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1918. In 1930, she got a chance to represent ASME in the World Power Conference in Germany.

Based on her experience working with employees, Gleason developed an interest in providing low-cost housing for them. Using her engineering skills, she came up with new designs for affordable housing, developing a new concrete pouring method for the construction of housing. In 1921, Gleason authored “How a Woman Builds Houses to Sell at a Profit for $4,000,” for the trade magazine Concrete.

Kate Gleason never married. When she died in 1933 she left behind an estate and $1.4 million dollars. As per her wishes, Rochester Institute of Technology was given 11 acres of her estate along with an estimated $57,000.

In 1998, the Rochester Institute of Technology named its engineering college the Kate Gleason College of Engineering. It remains the only engineering school in the world named after a woman.

The ASME Foundation established The Kate Gleason Award in her name in 2011 to recognize the contribution of distinguished woman leaders in the field of engineering.

As Gleason’s tale shows, woman find ways to develop their knowledge and skills in spite of the hurdles they face. Woman who wish to get into engineering can take inspiration from her life and accomplishments.

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